As expected, President Obama has called for an extension of the middle-class Bush tax cuts—which apply to all incomes under $250,000—and an end to the additional tax cut for income greater than that amount. Given the degree to which the GOP program is devoted to more and greater tax cuts for the wealthy, it’s no surprise that Republicans are completely opposed to this plan to modestly raise taxes on higher-income Americans. Indeed, in a renewed bit of hostage taking, congressional Republicans have refused to renew the middle-class tax cuts unless Democrats also vote to extend further tax cuts for wealthier Americans. If the issue isn’t resolved, lower-income and middle-class Americans will see a significant hit to their income, and the economy will suffer from the decline in consumer spending.
As Brian Beutler explains for Talking Points Memo, this puts Mitt Romney—standard-bearer for the Republican Party—in a tricky position:
Last time around, nobody really had to answer for that strategy — nobody with any real accountability anyhow. This time around Mitt Romney will play that part. And he’s going to have little choice but to own the hostage taking. There’s almost no conceivable way the right will give him enough berth to dodge the issue, let alone break with Congressional Republicans. This is the core of the GOP’s identity, and the single biggest organizing principle uniting the Conservative movement.
Romney is the worst possible politician for this role. Not only does he have the persona and mannerisms of a wealthy patrician, but he stands to reap significant personal gain if Republicans force an extension of all the Bush tax cuts. His immense wealth, offshore accounts, and career at Bain Capital make him the perfect target for the Democratic attacks. If there’s been a flavor of class warfare to the Obama team’s campaign against Mitt Romney, it’s going to become even stronger with this new approach on taxes. Democrats are incredibly well-positioned to solidify the image of Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat running for the benefit of his own class.
If there’s a problem, it’s that there isn’t a positive message behind the push for higher taxes on the rich. Few people support tax hikes for the sake of tax hikes, even if they’re meant for the wealthiest people in society. Rather, they support higher taxes for the sake of activist government—if we want programs for the least advantaged and security for everyone, we need to raise the burden for the most advantaged members of society. Presidential rhetoric isn’t particularly efficacious—especially when it comes to persuading the other side—but for the sake of rallying Democrats and providing a theme, it would be good for Obama to emphasize the extent to which this push is necessary for building a better society.
One last point. Since 2007, Obama has pushed for middle-class tax cuts and it’s not hard to see why—no one ever lost an election by promising lower taxes for ordinary people. But given the size and scope of Obama’s agenda—universal health care, a more robust safety net, and greater investment in infrastructure and technology—we will eventually need to end the middle-class Bush tax cuts, and return to Clinton-era rates on ordinary Americans. At the moment, this step doesn’t make economic or political sense. Eventually though, it’s a reality Democrats will have to reckon with.