The Republican driven tax cuts have worked. Voters now have more faith that the federal income tax system is fair than at any other time since World War II. Moreover these changes in public opinion coincide with the Republican capture of the House in 1994 and accelerate with the Bush tax cuts. But the irony of this success is that the GOP finds it hard to claim credit for a job well done. Once the tax monster is slain, who do you fight next? Once the people are no longer grumpy about unfair taxation (tea parties notwithstanding), how do you keep the issue alive? By successfully shifting public views of the fairness and burden of federal income taxes through repeated cuts, Republicans inadvertently also reduced the salience of their best issue of the 29 years since the Reagan Revolution. The public now agrees that tax cuts are good, but they are no longer particularly angry about taxes.I do think it's a bit simpler. The Wall Street Journal is read, by and large, by rich people, and Ari Fleischer wrote a nice little essay to make them happy. That it's political kryptonite doesn't concern him particularly.
Today Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to President Bush, offered an interesting proposal in the Wall Street Journal: raise income taxes on those who currently don't pay. That is a rather shocking proposition from the party that has spent nearly 30 years arguing that tax cuts are good for everyone. The very success of that political program has been to remove millions from the tax roles, and put nearly half within striking distance of paying no federal income taxes. So you'd think that would be cause for celebration among Republicans for a job well done and a lot of credit to claim with those voters.
Alas, those voters aren't voting Republican in overwhelming numbers. The way to not have to pay taxes is to not make a lot of money. And while these less taxed citizens appear to have been pleased with lower taxes, that hasn't translated into a majority of Republican votes among these non-taxpayers. So Mr. Fleischer has now taken on the burden of convincing nearly half of the public that it is not good for them to pay little or no income taxes. Instead, fairness demands that everyone pay taxes. That's a breathtaking argument for a Republican to make.
Fleischer goes on to argue that it is poor policy for the top 10% of earners to pay 72% of all income taxes, and that is probably a discussion worth having. But the argument for raising income taxes on the bottom 90% to provide a little more load sharing for the top 10% is an interesting electoral calculus to say the least.
Obama's plan to lower taxes for more of the lower 90% (or 95%, whatever) plays to the anti-tax momentum Bush built. And it means that Republicans don't have the angry taxpayer revolt of the late 1970s that helped build the Reagan platform that transformed tax policy for a generation of Republican politicians.
And so we are left with the irony of Republican success. How do you keep tax cuts at the center of your economics when nearly half don't pay, but aren't as grateful as they might be. And if the issue doesn't have the mass appeal it did for Reagan, can it still motivate the base (remember those tea parties!) enough to continue to have legs. But I have to wonder if Mr. Fleischer's plan is really the way for the anti-tax party to go.
He might even believe what he's saying is a good idea, but he doesn't have to try to sell it to the voters.