Taxes aren’t a third rail

The percentage of Americans who want to pay higher taxes is extremely small. It’s why candidates rarely seek public office promising to raise taxes, and it’s why Republicans see this as such a potent issue. If a GOP candidate can convince voters his or her Democratic rival will raise their taxes, the conventional wisdom goes, the odds of the Dem losing go up.

And in the context of the debt-reduction talks underway in D.C., congressional Republicans believe they not only can win the fight by refusing to compromise, they can also win the fight for public opinion by repeating, ad nauseum, that those rascally Democrats want to “raise taxes.”

The problem for the GOP is that this isn’t quite the electoral winner they assume it to be. Bruce Bartlett, a veteran of the Reagan and Bush administrations, noted yesterday:

Contrary to Republican dogma, polls show that the American people strongly support higher taxes to reduce the deficit and improve income inequality. Following are 19 different polls since the first of the year that say so.

Bruce goes on to reference (and link to) 19 polls, all from 2011, which show large chunks of the public support at least some tax increases. Indeed, the most interesting poll on Bruce’s list is a Washington Post/ABC News poll from last month that found 61% of the country believes higher taxes will be necessary to reduce the deficit.

Once policy details are added to the mix — if, for example, the public was told Democrats were only trying to eliminate unnecessary tax breaks for the oil industry and corporate-jet owners, for example — the so-called tax increases would probably be even more popular.

The assumption among Republicans is that the American mainstream believes exactly as GOP leaders do: all taxes are bad, all tax increases are bad, ergo anyone who supports more taxes is also bad.

Like most Republican assumptions, the evidence to support this is extremely thin.