Team Obama Flanks Romney on Taxes

This morning, the Obama campaign came out swinging against Mitt Romney’s tax plan, which will raise taxes on 95 percent of households, according to the Tax Policy Center. Here’s the ad:

The Romney campaign has pushed back, accusing the Center of bias—one of its analysts has ties to the Obama White House—but that ignores the extent to which the Center was quite generous in its evaluation of Romney’s plan. They assume a world where Romney cuts tax incentives for the rich—including the charitable giving deduction—and ends all deductions for any income over $200,000. They also assume that the plan will generate economic growth, providing funds to offset the cost of the tax cuts that form the centerpiece of the plan.

But these implausibly optimistic assumptions aren’t enough to square the circle of Romney’s tax plan. The only way Romney can keep the Bush tax cuts, cut taxes by 20 percent on top of that, and keep revenue at its current level is to borrow huge sums of money or raise taxes on the vast majority of Americans. If he’s unwilling to take either route, then he’ll have to make huge cuts to existing social services—which, for many Americans, will amount to a tax hike.

It’s hard to overstate the potential damage of this. Obama’s attacks on Romney’s financial life—Bain Capital, his tax returns, his ostentatious wealth—are meant to present the former Massachusetts governor as an unscrupulous plutocrat, indifferent to the lives of ordinary Americans. But the goal of that is to soften Romney for the main event—an all-out attack on his economic plan. Had Romney stuck to a more moderate plan, similar to the one he initially unveiled, the absence of radicalism would have made this a tough sell for the Obama campaign.

As it stands, Romney has spent the last year pandering to the most extreme supply-siders in the Republican Party. He really does plan to raise taxes on the vast majority of Americans in order to lower taxes for the wealthiest people in the country. And because this has been confirmed by independent analysis, it’s much more difficult for Romney to deflect the charge. Obama has also taken a real advantage on the issue of taxes—46 percent of Americans trust the president to handle tax policy, as opposed 45 percent for Romney. When you consider that Republicans have built their entire brand on taxes and handling federal expenditures, it's not good that the Republican nominee—whose has made his business experience key to his campaign—is running even with the president. 

This ad is only the beginning. The Obama team will continue to hit Romney on his tax returns and secrecy, but for the next three months, the bulk of their energy will go to hammering Romney on his tax plan, and presenting him as an avatar for the wealthy and selfish. The only way for Romney to settle these questions is to release his tax returns and write a more detailed plan, but the campaign has already ruled both out of the question.

There is one chief obstacle to Obama’s line of attack: the fact that Romney’s plan might be a little too extreme. A few weeks ago, Robert Draper relayed a telling anecdote:

Burton and his colleagues spent the early months of 2012 trying out the pitch that Romney was the most far-right presidential candidate since Barry Goldwater. It fell flat. The public did not view Romney as an extremist. For example, when Priorities informed a focus group that Romney supported the Ryan budget plan—and thus championed “ending Medicare as we know it”—while also advocating tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the respondents simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing. [Emphasis added]

Romney’s greatest asset is that he appears competent and reasonable. If that holds, then it’s an open question as to whether the Obama campaign can plausibly present him to the public as someone to fear.