Will Republicans Drive Voters Away with Too Much Tax Talk?

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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at the American Legion convention in Indianapolis on Aug. 29, 2012

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 “[taxes], 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 as tax-averse as the Republicans (and most political observers) seem to assume. And 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% of those polled said taxes should be raised on those in the middle class. But most Americans don’t think that taxes are an intolerable burden on the middle class: half of those polled said those in the middle are paying their “fair share” of taxes; only 38% feel the middle class is paying too much. No, really.

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The picture was radically different when Americans were asked how they felt about the rich. Only 8% said the rich are paying too much and are thus deserving of the tax breaks Mitt Romney’s plan would dole out so liberally to that demographic. A solid majority of those polled — 58% — said taxes on the rich are too low. Heck, most rich people — 52% — think 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 his plan’s big cuts in tax rates, he has provided virtually no details about the tax deductions and 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 would 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 plan would mean a de facto $500 tax increase, on average, for all those earning less than $200,000 a year.

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That will probably go over well with the 6% 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 thought a Romney presidency would benefit the wealthy; only 40% thought it would also help the middle class.

Still, McManus suggests, we should

[expect] 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.

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