Russell Long, who knew a lot about human nature, said most people's feelings about taxes could be summed up this way: Don't tax him, don't tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree.
Long served 35 years as the senator from Louisiana and probably knew more about, and had more influence over, the tax code than any senator before or since. He died this weekend as Congress was mired in yet another impenetrable gridlock over cutting taxes, an argument that has fiscal conservatives saying deficits don't count, traditional big spender Democrats saying they do, and moderate Republicans saying the way to break the deadlock and give the president the tax cut he wants is to raise taxes in two dozen other areas.
Excuse me, but this sounds more like politics than economic policy and I wondered how Russell Long would have felt. He always had the ability to see beyond the battle of the moment. He knew the people at the bottom could always use a little help at tax time, but he also knew you couldn't put all the taxes on business. You can't have capitalism, he said, without capital.
Long had a way of seeing the big picture and finding a way to work out something that both sides could accept. Too many of today's fund-raiser politicians can't see beyond the positions of their campaign contributors, which is why real compromise is so rare now and the kind of morass where Congress finds itself is so common.
No politician did more for his state than Russell Long but occasionally he went against public opinion, as when he voted for the Panama Canal treaty. Because, he said, a politician's first obligation was not to please his constituents, but to give them his best judgment. That's a philosophy we don't hear much anymore.