If a tax cut falls in a forest…

When Hill staffers are occasionally surveyed for their thoughts on lawmakers — nicest boss, most demanding, etc. — Sen. Richard Shelby (R) of Alabama never gets any votes in the “smartest senator” category. But despite his limitations, even he should be above comments like these, which Shelby made on NPR this morning about President Obama’s economic agenda.

“Oh you mean his big tax increase and all that? Absolutely, I have a lot of reaction to it. We’ve seen this movie before. It’s like the son of stimulus. It’s always more taxes and not enough cuts.”

Shelby’s argument about Obama and “more taxes” reminded me of a recent item I’ve been meaning to share from the Center for American Progress’ Michael Linden and Michael Ettlinger. The piece poses a question I’d love Shelby to consider.

If you had to guess whether President George W. Bush or President Barack Obama cut taxes more in his first term, which one would you choose? Probably President Bush, right? After all, the “the Bush tax cuts” were massive. And President Obama is the one calling for the expiration of some of those tax cuts. He’s also pushing for more revenue as we try to address our long-term fiscal imbalance.

Given all that, you could be forgiven for guessing that President Bush is the bigger tax cutter. But you’d actually be wrong. By the end of his first term, President Obama will have signed into law a series of tax cuts that, taken together, exceed the value of those signed into law by President Bush.

This image captures the point in stark terms:

And yet, this appears to be a well-kept secret. Indeed, Shelby probably even thinks he’s right when he says the president’s agenda “always” includes “more taxes.”

And plenty of people will believe him. A few weeks before the 2010 midterms, the NYT had a fascinating item, noting voters who received tax cuts, but who were certain Obama had raised their taxes. It wasn’t even close to true, but their perceptions were clouded by nonsense.

In fact, I also remember shortly after Obama’s 2010 State of the Union address, the right seemed annoyed that the president noted the tax cuts he and congressional Democrats had approved. National Review ran one piece that said Obama “strained credulity” with the claim about tax cuts. The same magazine ran another item insisting, “If the taxes of 95 percent of Americans actully [sic] had been cut, surely somebody other than Obama would have noticed.”

For the right, this is somehow a subjective question. Whether Obama cut taxes seems to be a matter of opinion. Sure, the president says he cut taxes for millions of Americans, but since people didn’t really notice, the argument goes, then maybe it didn’t happen.

Whether it’s widely realized or not, it did happen. We can debate whether the tax cuts were wise or effective; we shouldn’t debate whether they occurred in reality.