‘No one likes to see tax increases, but…’

This exchange from Tuesday night’s debate may be one of those moments voters see more than once.

Q: Governor Romney, I want to ask you, because President Obama’s jobs bill was stalled in the Senate today, and so it may have to be broken into component parts for Congress to vote on. If the payroll tax cut is not extended, that would mean a tax increase for all Americans. What would be the consequences of that?

ROMNEY: No one likes to see tax increases, but…

At that point, Romney changed the subject.

Later, in the same debate, Romney balked at the payroll tax cut, calling the breaks “little Band-Aids.” (That Romney believed the exact opposite last year is par for the course.)

Also consider the larger context. At a debate a month ago, Romney was asked about the percentage of Americans who don’t make enough money to be eligible for a federal income tax burden. The former governor responded, “I don’t want to raise taxes on the American people, but I think everybody ought to feel that they’re part of this effort and that they’re providing for our military.”

So, over the course of the last month, Romney has said “I don’t want to raise taxes on the American people, but…” followed by “No one likes to see tax increases, but…” when addressing two separate tax policy debates. The first was about income taxes; the second was about payroll taxes.

When the political world considers Romney’s biggest vulnerabilities as a presidential candidate, the focus tends to be on the two obvious flaws: his incessant flip-flopping and his atrocious record on job creation. But let’s not overlook an issue that’s bubbling under the surface: Mitt Romney wants to raise taxes on the middle class.

Indeed, the ostensible Republican frontrunner apparently wants to raise middle-class taxes right away, and by quite a bit, supporting an increase in payroll taxes in 2012, and backing higher federal income taxes on lower- and middle-income earners for the foreseeable future. He’s been surprisingly explicit on the latter point, recently telling voters, “I think it’s a real problem when you have half of Americans, almost half of Americans, that are not paying income tax.”

Romney also, incidentally, wants massive tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations.

The former governor does support capital gains tax breaks for the middle class, but the average benefit for a middle-income earner would about $70 a year — far less than the tax increases Romney has in mind for working families.

The ads appear to write themselves. When was the last time we saw a Republican nominee talk so openly and often about wanting to raise middle-class taxes?