View from Australia: The No Taxes Ever Party

By Jonathan Bradley

One of the oddities of American politics is that, at the moment, Republican politicians are more conservative than Republican voters. Polls consistently show that a lot of ideas proudly trumpeted by GOP members in the House and Senate, such as cutting Social Security or Medicare, actually have lukewarm support at best among the voters who sent those members to Washington. Republican voters — as opposed to the most vocal party actors involved in GOP primaries — seem to want pragmatic conservatives, but find themselves represented by unyielding idelogues. Never is this gap so clear as when conservatives are asked about taxes.

For example, in a recent Washington Post/Bloomberg poll, 54 per cent of voters who lean Republican said they were in favour of increasing the taxes paid by Americans who earn more than $250 000 a year. That's a smaller proportion than the number of Americans in favour of hitting the rich with a tax increase — 68 per cent like that idea — but it's still a majority. When he was running for president in 2008, Barack Obama actually said he would only increase taxes on people earning $25ok. His Republican opponents described that promise, now favoured by more than half of Repulican voters, as "redistributionist" and an act of "class warfare." (Remember Joe the Plumber? That was his deal.)

Despite the popularity of increasing taxes on the rich, no Republican politician will go near the idea. They nearly pushed the United States to default over the summer by refusing to accept a debt reduction deal that included increases on high income earners. The party's presidential candidates said they would not even take a theoretical debt reduction deal that involved ten dollars in spending cuts for every one in tax increases.

Timothy Noah is confused by these Republicans who work so hard against their own apparent interests:

To whom, exactly, do Republican officeholders and candidates think they're pandering? The Tea Party? Evidence has begun to trickle in that even the Tea Party isn't as anti-tax as Republican party leaders. On Aug. 1 the New York Times ran a Page One story by Kate Zernike (who recently published a book about the Tea Party) that said "the power of the Tea Party as a singular force may be more phantom than reality." Zernike then went on to report: "When Tea Party supporters were asked if the debt-ceiling agreement should include only tax increases, only spending cuts, or a combination of both, the majority — 53 percent — said that it should include a combination. Forty-five percent preferred only spending cuts." The story didn't get much play elsewhere because readers couldn't wrap their minds around it. How could Tea Party supporters not be thinking like ... Tea Party supporters? And if the Tea Party hasn't kidnapped the Republican party, who the hell has?

I figure there are two answers to this conundrum. The first is what Jonathan Bernstein discusses here, regarding why Republican politicians seem to prefer Herman Cain's fanciful "9-9-9" tax plan instead of getting behind Mitt Romney or Rick Perry, the party's likely standard bearers next year. Bernstein:

I think this is yet again the shadow of Bob Bennett. You know, the solidly conservative Utah Senator defeated in a primary by Tea Partiers. Everyone is just terrified of being labeled a RINO; no one is confident that his or her conservative credentials are sufficient.

The other answer relates to something I discussed on Tuesday: Politicians sometimes behave strangely because it's really difficult to let voters know where they stand.

In American politics at the moment, there are two parties. One party wants to increase the taxes paid by the wealthiest Americans. One party doesn't want to increase any taxes at all. 

Most voters want to increase the taxes the wealthiest Americans pay, but they also really don't want to increase the taxes lower and middle class Americans pay. It would make sense, then, for that majority of voters to vote for the Democratic Party, the one that wants to soak the rich and let everyone else off.

But Republicans tell voters that Democrats want to raise taxes. An informed voter will know the Dems only want to put up the taxes of those making more than $250k. But most voters are uninformed, particularly the coveted genuine independents who are so influential at election time. And for voters who really don't want their own taxes to go up, it's safer to stick with the guys who don't want any taxes to go up, instead of trusting that the Democrats will only tax the wealthiest.

Americans don't like Republican tax policy. Republicans don't like Republican tax policy. But Republican tax policy over recent years is very easy to explain: They don't like taxes. Ever. Democratic tax policy is potentially more popular, but it can only succeed if the party can make voters believe they aren't interested in increasing middle class taxes.

15 October 2011