Changing the tax paradigm

The assumption on tax policy in Republican circles has always been straightforward: voters will always hate all tax increases. The easiest way to win an argument — or win an election — is to say, “Democrats want to raise taxes.” Voters recoil, Dems cave, GOP wins. No muss, no fuss.

The assumption is increasingly wrong. Indeed, if they were ever true, it appears the larger paradigm has shifted in ways Republicans never expected — polls show surprisingly strong and consistent support for increased taxes on the wealthy. The GOP put deficit reduction on the front-burner and the American mainstream responded, “Great idea. Let’s talk about revenue.”

The Washington Post has an interesting piece this morning on the extent to which Republicans find themselves on the defensive on an issue they considered a strength. The article notes, for example, Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) being badgered by constituents on the need to raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations.

It is a scene that has been repeated at town hall meetings across the country this August as Democrats make a concerted effort to use this month’s congressional recess to change a national narrative on taxes.

For years, it has been Republicans who have wanted to talk about the issue, winning elections promising not to let government take more from voters.

But since the showdown over raising the debt ceiling, Democrats have been unusually eager to embrace tax increases, gambling that voters will see the Republican refusal to consider higher taxes for the wealthy as recalcitrant and out-of-touch.

“Silence has been Democrats’ main political strategy since the mid-’90s on this issue,” said Michael J. Graetz, a professor at Columbia Law School who has studied the tax issue. “What’s happened is people’s consciousness has been raised that cutting spending may mean serious cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. And that has had at least the potential to change the politics of the tax issue.”

What’s especially interesting is that the pressure appears to be getting to Republicans, at least a little. In this case, Hultgren continues to refuse to raise taxes — but if Congress wants to end oil-company subsidies and close tax loopholes, he’s open to it. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), confronted by 200 angry constituents this week, said the same thing.

We heard similar reactions from four far-right House Republicans who participated in a joint town-hall meeting in a very conservative area, when three of the four wouldn’t rule out additional revenue.

Democrats believe this is a debate that works for them. There’s ample evidence they’re right.