Column: Republicans Have to Find a Better Approach to the Tax Debate
After every presidential election comes the battle of the Mandate. The president claims to have one. (Typically, it’s the president’s braggy advisers who claim he has one.) The losing party denies it. Yeah, sure, the other guy won, but the other party controls Congress (Democrats, 1984), and the third-party candidate spoiled the vote (Republicans, 1992), and not in a century has somebody been re-elected with so few electoral votes (Democrats, 2004), and anyway, the guy’s a secret Muslim who suckered people because he was never vetted by the media (you shouldn’t need a clue for this one).
The anti-Mandate meme is struggling now. Part of the problem stems from the pre-election “unskewed polls” craze, which led to conservatives predicting a big Romney win, which made it harder to minimize what actually happened. The bigger part of the problem: The president promised to raise some tax rates. Voters agreed.
Republicans haven’t even tried to spin this away. At last week’s meeting of the Republican Governors Association, men who had failed to elect Mitt Romney admitted that they’d lost the tax issue. “Elections have consequences,” said Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. “Clearly, overwhelmingly, people in America believe that raising rates on people that are in the upper income is part of the mix, the president is supporting that.”
Last year, at one of their overstuffed debates, the party’s 2012 presidential candidates were asked whether they’d accept “one dollar of tax increases for 10 dollars of cuts.” They said no. Asked a similar question now, the Republicans who didn’t lose are shrugging. Gov. Butch Otter of Idaho, safe red territory, said he’d accept tax increases “if I got a lot of the things that I wanted.”
There’s really no disagreement about what increases we’re talking about, or how popular they are. In 2012, as in 2008, President Obama pledged to keep most of the 2001 and 2003 income tax cuts, but not the one on incomes above $250,000. It would rise from 35 percent to 39.6 percent. That would raise, probably, $823 billion over a decade. Obama’s tax stance was to the right of Bill Clinton’s and Al Gore’s, which is sort of the secret of the whole election — centrist tax policy girded by happy class warfare against a man who owned a car elevator.
The top rate cut was always the least popular piece of Bush’s tax plans. That was why he said “everyone” would get a tax cut if it passed; that was also why Romney, in his best presidential debate, said he wasn’t going to actually cut taxes on the rich, because he’d nail them later by closing loopholes. In the network exit poll, 47 percent of voters wanted to raise the tax rate on incomes over $250,000. Thirteen percent wanted to soak everybody; only 35 percent wanted no tax increases. “There was one thing that everybody understood was a big difference between myself and Mr. Romney,” said Obama last Wednesday. “I think every voter out there understood that that was an important debate, and the majority of voters agreed with me. By the way, more voters agreed with me on this issue than voted for me.”
Republicans get that, and some of them knew it would happen. The “one dollar for 10 dollars” comment, says retiring Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, was “one of the dumbest answers Romney was forced into giving, a stupid answer built out of a right-leaning process. There isn’t anybody sitting at home who thinks that. There’s a guy sitting on his couch in Ohio watching that, saying: ‘Who wouldn’t take that deal?’ ”
Even Romney got it, sort of. At the Boca Raton, Fla., fundraiser that was surreptitiously taped and given to Mother Jones, Romney theorized that “our message of low taxes doesn’t connect” because “47 percent of Americans pay no income tax.” He couldn’t bring himself to admit that voters wanted to raise taxes on people like him. When he and Paul Ryan were on their game, they’d promise to make corporations (Democrat-friendly General Electric, for example) pay taxes. The admission: OK, it seems like voters really think that the rich are getting off easy.
Not since the 1970s have Republicans been so weak on the tax issue. As Romney said, in his way, they’re victims of their own success. They’ve lowered rates to the extent that voters don’t fret about them. So they’re no longer talking about the Dec. 31 deadline for the tax rates as a Masada, a full-bore defense of the old rates. They’re talking about what they can get if they accede to the Democrats.
These same Republicans, of course, have signed the Americans for Tax Reform pledge. As Democrats now delight in reminding them, they have “sworn an oath to Grover Norquist” that they won’t raise taxes, because the last time they did so — 1991 —they never got the cuts they were promised.
Lucky for us, Norquist takes some time from being caricatured to give actual quotes to people. Last Thursday, he appeared at the Atlantic Ideas Forum in Washington to defend himself. He quickly corrected his interviewer, Chuck Todd, when the pledge was described as a ban on “tax increases.” The prohibition, said Norquist, was on “net tax increases.” When John Boehner talked about raising revenue, well, fine, Republicans were allowed to do that. Did the exit poll say that 60 percent of people wanted higher taxes? Well, sure.
“Same exit poll,” said Norquist, “63 percent said don’t raise taxes to reduce the deficit. Why those two things? The answer is, if you ask people: ‘If the politicians raise taxes on the rich, do you think they’ll raise taxes on the middle class,’ then 75 percent of Americans say yes.”
But that wasn’t quite what the electorate said, and Republicans know it. Obama’s Democrats have actually cleaved the tax issue in two. If the Bush tax cuts expire, yes, everyone’s tax rates will go up. But Obama will blame that on Republicans, and voters are ready to agree with him. If a new bill restores the cuts for lower tax brackets, Republicans can vote for it and fulfill their pledge, technically. They just haven’t figured out a new way to defend those high-end tax cuts that doesn’t get them shredded at the polls. “It would have been so much easier,” says Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., “if Romney had won.”
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.