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Some lessons from the Buffett Rule

In presidential politics, should the grading be on a curve? Specifically, assessing President Obama, is it correct to judge his policies on the merits, or in the broader context of legislative realities and the elephant-in-the-room fact of the looming election?

The answer to this question is the difference between a solid B-plus and, on my more charitable days, a gentleman's C.

The columnist's instinct -- and the columnist's luxury -- is to imagine a more perfect union in which the sustained force of presidential leadership can move a nation. The columnist can choose to dateline her missive from the perfect precincts of Cloud Cuckoo Land.

The politician's instinct -- and the politician's reality -- is to buy himself the chance to do what he wants eventually. He practices the political Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm to your re-election.

The inevitable clash of these opposing instincts results in frustration and disappointment on the columnist's part, frustration and fury on the politician's.

So let's talk about the Buffett Rule, the president's argument that millionaires should not pay a smaller share of their income in taxes than does the middle class.

From the columnist's perspective, this is pure political stunt. Not wrong or harmful, just irrelevant. It won't pass. And even if that happened, it would have a negligible impact on the exploding debt -- $4.7 billion a year, or less than four-tenths of 1 percent of this year's deficit -- and take a tiny nibble out of income inequality.

Meanwhile, at what cost? If the Buffett Rule were magically to pass, raising taxes on millionaires alone risks making it harder, not easier, to hit others later. Leading voters to believe that the biggest problem in the tax code is the inequitable treatment of millionaires seems less likely to pave the way for a larger solution than to reinforce the conviction that debt reduction can be achieved pain-free, by taxing the other guy. What profits a president to win re-election but lack a mandate?

So the columnist imagines the world in which a brave president had embraced the report of his fiscal commission and pressed hard for it a year ago, or in which an even braver president produces a blueprint for fundamental tax reform and campaigns for it now. Or at least doesn't insult our intelligence by campaigning on something so thoroughly poll-tested and trivial as the Buffett Rule.

Every president confronts this tension, but there are two striking things about Obama's performance.

The first is the degree to which he favors incremental pragmatism over bold experimentation. Sometimes that may be the smart call, and whether this tendency reflects canniness or lack of courage is unknowable. But on the big stuff, you can't win if you don't try -- or put off trying until after re-election.

The second is the administration's self-serving effort to wrap political calculus in the sheep's clothing of good policy. At a White House briefing touting the Buffett Rule, senior officials insisted it was not merely a useful electoral wedge or a reasonable tweak to the code. Rather, they insisted, it was -- tah dah! -- a crucial baby step toward broader tax reform.

That very day, different administration officials were explaining that the president could not issue an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating against gays. That move, they argued, would detract from the bigger goal of passing non-discrimination legislation.

Really, guys, I'm willing to mark on a curve. Just not when you act entitled to a perfect grade without it.