Party-platform phantoms

If history teaches us anything, it is to be wary of party platforms and taxing pronouncements made by presidential candidates between Labor Day and the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. History reveals that neither Democrats nor Republicans fit the stereotypes that pundits have ascribed to them over the years.

Take, for example, the election year 1932, when Congress passed the largest tax increase ever enacted in peacetime up to that time - and in the midst of the Great Depression. The Revenue Act of 1932, signed by Republican President Herbert Hoover on June 6, 1932, reduced the personal income tax exemption from $ 1,500 to $1,000 for a single individual and from $3,500 to $2,500 for a married couple. The act cut in half the exemption for estate taxes (from $100,000 to $50 ,000) and imposed increased excise taxes on various goods, including radios, refrigerators, and gasoline.

The view that a balanced budget, which would result from these increased taxes, was critical to the curing of the depression was widespread among congressional leaders, including the Democratic Speaker of the House, John Nance Garner. In fact, the Democrats attempted to pass legislation establishing a federal sales tax. In a reversal of roles, the Republicans pointed out that such a measure would have an unfavorable impact on those least able to pay. ''We laid aside all thought of a general sales or turnover tax,'' said Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon before a House committee, ''not only because generally speaking it bears no relation to ability to pay and is regressive in character, but because of the great administrative difficulties involved....''

Like Republicans today, President Hoover also believed that government expenditures had to be reduced, and on Sept. 10 delineated $500 million as the projected cut for fiscal year 1934. But Democratic presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt felt that Hoover's cuts weren't enough and lambasted him for failing to get his fiscal house in order. The deficit for 1933, FDR noted in one campaign speech, was ''so great that it makes us catch our breath.'' Roosevelt went on to suggest that ''the budget is not balanced and the whole job must be done over again in the next session of Congress.''

Then there was the 1932 Democratic platform, which stressed old-time fiscal orthodoxy rather than the New Deal spending that would ultimately typify the Roosevelt years:

''We advocate an immediate and drastic reduction of government expenditures ... to accomplish a saving of not less than 25 percent in the cost of the federal government....

''We favor maintenance of the national credit by a federal budget annually balanced on the basis of accurate estimates within revenues raised by a system of taxation levied on the principle of ability to pay....''

''We advocate the removal of government from all fields of private enterprise except where necessary to develop public works and natural resources in the common interest....

''We oppose cancellation of the debts owing to the US by foreign nations....''

The moral of this story is that political platforms are made of planks that have a tendency to wear thin in the autumn of election years. And by winter they sometimes get buried under mounds of snow so deep that only subsequent historians know for certain whether they really did exist.

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