Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The GOP Trouble on Taxes

New polling research out late last week shows exactly the mess that Republicans have made for themselves on taxes. A YouGov study by political scientists Gregory Huber, Conor Dowling, and Seth Hill shows a sharp divide between the way Democrats and Republicans think about tax fairness – and shows that independents side with Democrats.

The study asks people what they think a marginal rates should be for various levels of (high) income, beginning with families earning $100,000. At each level, it’s no surprise that Democrats preferred higher taxes than Republicans, with independents in each case falling in between. So neither party appears to have any advantage on the general amount of taxation, or perhaps Republicans have a slim edge. But beyond the overall level, the parties were also sharply divided on how progressive taxes should be. And here, independents are considerably closer to Democrats. So Democrats believe that marginal taxes on families earning $250,000 or $500,000 should be 8 points higher than on those earning $100,000, and independents have virtually the same preference (7 points), while Republicans want a flatter structure (3 point difference). The same was true, although it’s a closer call, for preferred taxes on families making $750,000 or $1M.
In other words, what the study found was that there’s a real divide about what constitutes “fairness.” Republicans tend to believe that fairness demands that everyone pay the same rate, while Democrats – and independents – believe that fairness requires the rich to pay more.

(From the study as presented, there’s no way to know whether Republicans differ here because people with those beliefs become Republicans, or if people who are Republicans learn to believe it. My guess is on the latter).

The dilemma for Republican politicians here is clear: their primary voters are pushing them into a position on taxes which embraces a version of fairness that few outside the GOP base share. So something such as Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan can be wildly popular among Republican voters, but electoral poison in November. Repeat across enough issues, and you wind up with a Mitt Romney, backing his way into a presidential nomination of party that doesn’t really like him very much while at the same time taking positions that could hurt him in November. For Republicans, there doesn’t appear to be any easy solution.


  1. Republicans haven't made a mess of this issue, except I suppose that they haven't been persuasive enough. But generally speaking, people can't reach agreement by persuasion, that's not how human society works. Republicans want X, most people don't. This isn't a mess, this is the beginning of politics.

    Sure, this makes it harder for Republican politicians to get into power, but well it should. In fact, Republicans have managed this issue very well, by maintaining solidarity and punishing any politician who betrays them on this issue.

    Now you can argue that the Republicans have taken this approach across too many issues and as a result ended up with too small a coalition (arguable) but this is clearly an extremely important issue for them - perhaps the most important - and so your criticism seems way off base.

  2. I suppose it will all depend on how salient this issue is in the fall, since it's probable that these tax preferences haven't changed that much over the years, and that hasn't prevented Republicans from winning even when they've flirted with flat tax rhetoric and framings during primaries. Obama wants to make this issue salient (so do I!). The question is to what extent will he be able to set the terms of the election contest and prolong a moment sympathetic to Occupy-style passion into the fall? It would not be good if that moment has passed, and other themes and issues take up center stage.

  3. Ah, but what if you SELL your tax flattening proposals as tax cuts for the average Joe? Think back to the Bush tax cuts. Rich people got MASSIVE cuts, and middle/low income people got a pittance. The Bush Admin and their media allies were out there every day pushing "average family gets a $1000 tax cut." That's real money, and people liked that. They didn't mention "rich people save tens to hundreds of thousands"

  4. And why do republican states that raise the least amount of Federal revenue, spend the most in Federal money?

  5. You know, I think Matt Jarvis raises a critical point just above; one too often missed by liberals when they wring their hands and say "Why oh why do the knuckle-dragging slobs in the Republican tent support policies favoring the rich? Are they merely puppets?"

    Of course not! They think these policies favor them, as Matt's post eloquently illustrates. I suspect the same is true with the flat tax, using the following frame:

    To the average Joe, the flat tax is also the "simple" tax. He has a vague and unpleasant awareness that the current code is byzantine, and he is further aware that the H&R Block rep at Sears is probably not working the system as well as the tax lawyer cousin of the moron living next door. As a result of his too-small annual refund, he senses that the current tax structure is not being worked to his favor (probably true; though its questionable whether his neighbors do any better).

    So he likes a flat tax because he believes that all the mystery will be taken away - as will his disadvantage. A world where everyone pays 15% of whatever is their earnings seems like it benefits him because he suspects others are paying less via sophisticated planning he cannot access or perhaps afford.


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