In last night's Republican presidential debate, moderator Carolyn Washburn asked the sort of tax policy question that each candidate should have been able to really tee off on: "Who in this country is paying more than a fair share of taxes relative to everyone else: the wealthy, the middle class, the poor or corporations?"
The answers rarely touched specifically on the actual question, possibly due to poor guidance from the moderator. Where salient, the responses varied, from "the rich" (Thompson, implicitly), "not the rich" (Romney, sort of), to "not the poor" (McCain), to "the middle class" (Romney, Paul, Giuliani) to "everyone" (Tancredo). In a separate category was Alan Keyes (who I quite honestly had no idea was running for President until I read the transcript), who adopted the clever and unique strategy of spontaneously combusting in response to the question.
The New York Times has the full transcript. Here's the relevant section, very slightly edited for non sequiturs (this standard is not applied to Keyes' response, which would have had to be excised completely), including each candidate's answer to the moderator's question:
MS. WASHBURN: ... I want to go down the line in reverse order and hear from everyone very briefly, please, 15 seconds or so.
Who in this country is paying more than a fair share of taxes relative to everyone else: the wealthy, the middle class, the poor or corporations?
Starting with Mr. Keyes.
MR. KEYES: It's one of those let you and him fight questions the people in the media always want to get us involved in; because they would like to pretend that the tax question is about fighting amongst ourselves when the real sacrifice that's required from the American people we need to start sacrificing some of these incumbents who have funded their political ambition using our money --
MS. WASHBURN: Remember, we have 15 seconds.
MR. KEYES: -- who have spent overboard into deficits after promising us on the Republican side that they would limit the government, and then produced the highest budget deficits in the history of our country.
MS. WASHBURN: Senator McCain?
MR. KEYES: I think we need to stop listening to these phonies and start looking for people who will actually fulfill the words that they speak. That's what I think.
MS. WASHBURN: Senator McCain?
SEN. MCCAIN: I know that I'm happy to say low-income Americans, except for payroll taxes, don't pay taxes, but we've got to reform the tax code. Nobody understands it. Nobody trusts it. Nobody believes in it. And we have to fix it. And we can't raise taxes as our Democrat friends want.
So I don't know exactly who's paying the most of the burden, but I would say that the American people need a tax code they can understand and that they know is fair.
MS. WASHBURN: Governor Huckabee?
MR. HUCKABEE: Over 80 percent of the American people know that the tax code is irreparably broken. I would lead one to a fair tax, and that means that the rich people aren't going to be made poor, but maybe the poor people could be made rich. That ought to be the goal of any tax system -- not to punish somebody, but to enable somebody so that they can have a part of the American dream. The fair tax does just that.
MS. WASHBURN: Governor Romney?
MR. ROMNEY: I don't stay awake at night worrying about the taxes that rich people are paying, to tell you the truth.
I'm concerned about the taxes that middle class families are paying. They're under a lot of pressure. Gasoline's expensive. Home heating oil, particularly in the Northeast, is very difficult for folks. Health care costs are going through the roof. Education costs and higher education are overwhelming. And as a result, we need to reduce the burden on middle-income families in this country.
MS. WASHBURN: Okay, a little snappier, gentlemen. (Laughter.)
MR. THOMPSON: My goal is to get into Mitt Romney's situation, where I don't have to worry about taxes anymore. (Laughter.)
Five percent of Americans pay over half the income taxes in this country. 40 percent of Americans pay no income taxes at all. I think we need to concentrate on preserving the tax cuts of '01 and '03. That's going to be a monumental battle that's going to be coming at the end of 2010.
MS. WASHBURN: Congressman.
REP. TANCREDO: Everyone that is presently paying tax, you could be -- you can make a case that they're paying too much. The reality is, of course, you need a different system entirely. We do need to move away from this archaic -- a system that taxes productivity, which is what we do, to a system that allows for a fair tax. I believe in that.
MS. WASHBURN: Thank you.
REP. PAUL: The most sinister of all taxes is the inflation tax and it is the most regressive. It hits the poor and the middle class. When you destroy a currency by creating money out of thin air to pay the bills, the value of the dollar goes down, and people get hit with a higher cost of living.
It's the middle class that's being wiped out. It is most evil of all taxes.
REP. HUNTER: The tax that we're all paying that doesn't help anything -- it doesn't go to defense, it doesn't go to the roads, it doesn't go to medical care -- is the $250 billion-plus that we pay each year not to the federal government, to the Treasury, but to prepare our taxes, defend our taxes, and for the massive cost of the IRS. That's all overhead -- 250 billion-plus dollars. What we ought to do is have a system -- the fair tax system is a good one, or a flatter tax or a simpler tax, because that young couple that pays 1,450 bucks in taxes may pay $450 to their tax preparer. That's a second tax.
MS. WASHBURN: Mayor?
MR. GIULIANI: A flatter tax, a simpler tax that you could file on a one page, as an option, would be a good idea. Reducing the corporate tax, as I suggested. Reducing income tax rates across the board, which would mostly benefit the middle class. That's where the focus should be.
But we've got to reduce taxes across the board, and we should give the death penalty to the death tax. It really is a very unfair tax.
MS. WASHBURN: Thank you.
The NYT has the full transcript here. NPR's coverage is here.
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