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Posted at 4:55 PM ET, 12/ 6/2010

Why Democrats could struggle to win the tax cut fight

By Chris Cillizza

The likelihood of a deal to extend the Bush era tax cuts for two years ensures that the 2012 presidential election will feature a prominent -- and high stakes -- fight over the rightness of that policy.

The problem for President Obama and his fellow Democrats? They likely will enter that fight with one hand tied (or at least pinned) behind their collective backs.

Why?

Two reasons.

First, because fighting on tax cuts/tax policy amounts to a home game for Republicans in the eyes of many voters -- in particular electorally critical independents.

Polling tells the story. A post-election survey done by the Associated Press showed 45 percent of those tested saying they trust Republicans on tax issues while 41 percent named Democrats. Among independents, 43 percent trusted Republicans more while 34 percent said they favored Democrats.

Those numbers are a slight uptick for Republicans from pre-election polling; an early October Washington Post/ABC survey showed the GOP with a 43 percent to 40 percent edge over Democrats on the tax trust issue.

Looked at historically, polling has long suggested that the American public perceives the Republican party to be more responsible -- and able -- when it comes to the tax issue in much the same way that people tend to inherently trust Democrats more on things like education, for example.

Any time then that the White House and the Congress are holding an extended debate over taxes, Republicans feel they are on steady ground with a stronger-than-average chance of winning.

The way the tax debate has played out in the lame duck Congressional session affirms that tendency. While Republicans stood firm in opposition to the repeal of tax cuts for any income bracket, Democrats watched as several of their own members revolted against a proposals that would have wiped out the tax cuts for those earning either $250,000 a year or $1 million a year.

Second, winning in politics often boils down to which side has the simplest message. (Sorry but it's true.)

And, Republicans message -- "raising taxes is bad" -- is far more likely to fit on a bumper sticker than the Democratic message of "yes, we raised taxes...but only on the rich".

In a poll conducted for the conservative group Crossroads GPS group, Republican pollster Glen Bolger makes the case that the GOP is well positioned to win the message war.

Two thirds of those tested support extending the Bush tax cuts while 29 percent want to let them expire. Using the preferred Republican messaging nomenclature, however, and the numbers spike even higher; 83 percent want to "keep current tax rates" while just 14 percent would prefer to "raise taxes on January 1".

Bolger also notes that 66 percent of the sample believe that failing to extend the tax cuts amounts to a tax increase while 29 percent said it would not be a tax increase.

There is contradictory polling evidence out there, however. A CBS News survey showed that just over a quarter of Americans (26 percent) want to extend tax cuts for everyone while a majority -- 53 percent -- want to extend it only for households making $250,000 or less. Fourteen percent want to repeal all of the tax cuts.

That data reminds us -- and we never should forget -- that proclaiming political victory (or defeat) two years before the fight over the tax cuts will begin again in earnest could well be a fool's errand in hindsight.

The Republican edge on the tax cut trust question has shrunk from where it stood a decade or two ago -- suggesting that the tectonic political plates may be shifting somewhat and could re-align far more between now and 2012.

And, recent political history suggests simply playing a political home game is not enough to ensure victory.

President Obama and congressional Democrats entered into last year's health care debate with a public far more willing to trust them than Republicans on reforming the system. They left it bruised and battered politically -- albeit with a piece of legislation under their belt.

(Make sure to read the Post's Ezra Klein on how settling for a two-year tax cut extension could wind up working in the political favor of the Obama White House.)

Simply put: Politics is an unpredictable and ever-changing business. What's true today may not be true in six months. (To wit: Hillary Clinton could NEVER lose a Democratic presidential primary.)

Still, Republicans are likely to be fighting from a position of strength when the tax cut debate resurfaces sometime in mid 2012.

By Chris Cillizza  | December 6, 2010; 4:55 PM ET
Categories:  Democratic Party, Republican Party  
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