The term “reality check” is often used by people to foster a sense that one faction or another is on the right side of all that is good and meaningful. Achieving that equilibrium turns out to be an uphill battle because reality seems to shift according to political whim.

Taxes are a daunting subject when it comes to assessing their impact on ordinary Americans and determining where politicians stand on the issue – – not to mention trade, the war, national security and immigration. Unfortunately, messages repeated on the internet, in newsprint, on talk radio and TV are often simplistic spins that leave the public as poorly informed as ever. How else to explain that some Bush supporters still believe invading Iraq was a well-considered response to the attacks on 9/11? And the fact that we’re in the middle of a tumultuous campaign season hasn’t made discussions about these matters any easier or more clearly defined.

With respect to the “Bush tax cuts” candidate McCain originally said he opposed them for favoring the rich over the middle class. Now he wants to make them permanent apparently in an attempt to appeal to the conservative wing of the Republican Party.  His “straight talk express” has gone off the rails and fallen into a twisted ideological ravine in which any tax plan that would reduce breaks for the super rich and enormously profitable corporations is referred to as “raising taxes” – –  lower taxes being touted as a panacea for all that ails the American economy.

People who obviously know better cloak their rhetoric in a manner designed to confuse the general population because the tax code has so little to do with their condition. By the time the average worker’s paycheck is pock-marked with its various withholdings his tax liability has gone far beyond whatever his marginal tax rate might be. Comments by the administration about the tax-cut benefits derived by such wage earners only serve to highlight the irony of how small those financial returns actually are.

Republicans love to use the term “death tax” instead of inheritance tax but in any case few people are subject to it; when the exemption rises in 2009, only 3 of every 1000 would be affected. (Report of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 10/11/07 In fact what seems more to the point is that while the deceased, through whatever means, accumulated great wealth inheritors are actually receiving what is basically unearned or taxable income. And besides as President Theodore Roosevelt is quoted as saying in 1906 “the man of great wealth owes a particular obligation to the state because he derives special advantages from the mere existence of government.” Bill Gates Sr. and other wealthy individuals have expressed similar opinions.

Nevertheless, forcing voters to focus on the real costs and benefits of what their government is doing, either in terms of tax policies or foreign commitments is no small task. People may say they are against the war, that fuel costs are too high and that they are unable to afford adequate health care. But when it comes to actually attending to the issues at hand many can still be sidetracked not only by the machinations of the Bush administration but by Democrats who seem to have forgotten the core values that were originally thought to frame their sense of mission.  

Senator Clinton has taken to appearing before banks of American flags surrounded by sycophants of the kind usually associated with Republican operatives. And if her purpose in accusing the Obama campaign of behaving like Ken Starr was to relive her days as First Victim, it’s a curious gambit that is poorly understood and mostly ridiculed. Yet if this is part of her kitchen-sink approach it seems to have met with some success.

Barack Obama has said quite promisingly that he intends to tell Americans not just what they want to hear but what they need to hear. He should exercise caution in this regard, however, because the politics of fear and deception still work; Hillary’s red phone commercial has turned a few heads her way, and her claims about McCain’s and her superior credentials in terms of experience have given her new life even as some Democratic Party loyalists experience feelings of revulsion.

Change will not be accomplished by means of the same old junk politics. If voters begin to see that is what’s in their future, they won’t be rushing to the polls in November.