Will Republicans Drive Voters Away With Too Much Tax Talk?

It’s not exactly a secret  that Republicans hate taxes. The speeches at the Republican national Convention this week have been peppered with talk of tax cuts and the evils of “overtaxation.” And the Republican party platform, approved on Tuesday, goes even further: In a passage that might as well have been written by Ayn Rand, the Repubs declare that “[t]axes, by their very nature, reduce a citizen’s freedom.”

Promises of more tax cuts go over big with the Republican faithful. But a new poll from the Pew Research Center suggests that Americans, by and large, aren’t quite as tax-averse as the Republicans (and most political observers) seem to assume they are. And that the Republican love of tax-cut rhetoric could end up driving away potential voters.

It’s true that Americans aren’t exactly tax enthusiasts, at least when it comes to them personally: only 6 percent of those polled feel that taxes should be raised on those in the middle class. But most Americans don’t actually think that taxes are an intolerable burden on the middle class: half of those polled felt that those in the middle are paying their “fair share” of taxes; only 38 percent feel the middle class is paying too much. No, really.

The picture is radically different when Americans are asked how they feel about the rich. Only 8 percent feel the rich are paying too much, and thus deserving of the tax breaks the Romney plan doles out so liberally to this particular demographic. And a solid majority of those polled  – 58% — feel that taxes on the rich are too low. Heck, most rich people — 52% — think that they pay less than their fair share.

These results suggest that Republican intransigence on keeping tax cuts for the rich may be misguided. And that the rest of Romney’s tax plan may not go over well once it becomes clear what it really entails.

While Romney has been happy to talk about the big cuts in tax rates in his plan, he’s provided virtually no details about the tax deductions and the other “underbrush” in the tax code that he’ll have to water down or eliminate to make his proposal, as promised, “revenue neutral.”  Trouble is, these deductions – like the home mortgage interest deduction and deductions for state income taxes already paid – mostly benefit those who aren’t rich, so eliminating them will mean higher, not lower, taxes for poor and middle-class Americans.

Working with the limited details provided so far by the Romney campaign, the Tax Policy Center estimates that his tax plan will mean a de facto $500 tax increase, on average, for all of those earning less than $200,000 a year.

That will probably go over well with the 6 percent of Americans who think the middle class should be paying more.

The Romney campaign, perhaps aware that endless talk about Romney’s tax plan may end up backfiring, seems to be adjusting its rhetoric. As Doyle McManus notes in the Los Angeles Times, the campaign seems to be trying hard to position Romney not so much as a champion of tax cuts as a friend of the middle class. That may be a hard sell: the Pew survey found that 71% of Americans think that a Romney presidency would benefit the wealthy; only 40% thought it would also help the middle-class.

Still, McManus suggests, we should

[e]xpect to hear less about capital gains tax rates and more about jobs, higher take-home pay, even better training programs for the unemployed.

Indeed, as he points out:

The retooling of the Romney message began several weeks ago, when the candidate boiled his 59-point “Plan for Jobs and Economic Growth” down to a five-point “Plan for a Stronger Middle Class.” The proposals were the same, but the emphasis was different: more about help for small businesses, less about tax cuts.

Another benefit of this strategy: it might also help to get media attention away from the questions surrounding Romney’s own tax returns.  Even if it turns out there’s nothing fishy going on in Romney’s tax filings, they’re yet another reminder that, as a rich guy, he personally would benefit far more from his tax plan that most of those he hopes will vote for him.

By David Futrelle

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