‘Buffett Rule’ is opening act in Obama-Romney election battle


U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the Buffett Rule in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington, April 11, 2012. REUTERS/Larry Downing (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) (LARRY DOWNING/REUTERS)
April 12, 2012

The Senate won’t vote on the Buffett Rule until next week, but it dominated political conversation in what was effectively the first day of the general election race between Mitt Romney and President Obama. Felicia Sonmez wrote:

As President Obama took to the Rose Garden for an event to promote his Buffett Rule tax increase on the wealthiest Americans, Mitt Romney’s campaign launched a counter-offensive in a conference call with some of the former Massachusetts governor’s top economic advisers.

Romney economic policy adviser Kevin Hassett, policy director Lanhee Chen and CKE Restaurants CEO Andy Puzder slammed the Buffett Rule proposal and, for a third straight day, renewed the GOP argument that the Obama administration’s economic proposals have disproportionately affected women.

The Buffett Rule, argued Hassett, amounts to a “gussied-up” capital gains tax hike and a policy move that would result in marginal tax rates “well in excess of 30 percent.”

Puzder called the proposal “obviously politically motivated” and said that it would have little impact on either addressing the country’s ballooning debt or on righting the economy.

“The recovery seems to be stagnant,” he said. “The economy seems to be stagnant. And all we’re talking about is a rule that will raise less than one percent of what we’re talking about in deficit spending over the next ten years.”

Chen contended that what is “most startling” about Obama’s record is that women account for more than 90 percent of the job losses that have occurred since Obama took office — a point that the administration disputes.

Obama, he added, needs to stop blaming others and start taking responsibility for the country’s economic downturn.

The Buffett Rule was based on a simple anecdote, but its namesake policy is more complicated. Ezra Klein posted in Wonkblog on “Why everything you think about the Buffett Rule is wrong”:

“It’s simple,” the president said on Tuesday. “If you make more money — more than $1 million a year, not if you have $1 million, but if you make more than $1 million a year, you should pay at least the same percentage of your income in taxes as middle-class families do.”

And that is simple. But it’s not how the Buffett rule actually works.

When President Obama says that “this vote is coming up,” he means that the Senate is planning an April 16 vote on Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s “Paying a Fair Share Act.” This is the bill that actually enacts the Buffett rule. But it doesn’t do exactly what Obama says the Buffett rule does. Here’s Whitehouse explaining the legislation to me:

In other words: The “Paying a Fair Share Act” doesn’t mean someone making $1,500,000 will pay at least the same percentage of his income in taxes as the average middle-class family. It means he would pay a somewhat higher marginal rate on the income he earns over $1 million — in this case, on the excess $500,000.

Moreover, that higher marginal rate would only reach 30 percent on income over $2 million. Between $1 million and $2 million, the Buffett rule phases in so as to avoid a sharp “tax cliff” at the million-dollar mark.

Another misconception: The proposal doesn’t raise $47 billion over 10 years. Or, rather, it does, but only if you use the “current law baseline” that assumes the full expiration of the Bush tax cuts. No one really uses that baseline. If you look at Paul Ryan’s budget, for instance, its appendix tables use a “current policy baseline,” which assumes, among other things, that the Bush tax cuts are extended.

Compared with that baseline, the Paying a Fair Share Act actually raises about $160 billion. Still not enough to solve our deficit problems on its own, but nothing to sneeze at.

But the Buffett Rule is not as not as politically simple as it sounds either, Rachel Weiner wrote Tuesday in the Fix.

Clearly, Democrats think the “Buffett Rule” is very good politics.

President Obama is pitching it in Boca Raton, Fla., today — his 20th speech on the subject since the State of the Union, according to CBS. Yesterday, his campaign held a conference call about it. Vice President Biden will talk about it Thursday in New Hampshire. Senate Democrats have pledged to push it all year long.

But a new survey from a centrist Democratic group suggests that the proposal, which would ensure that taxpayers who make over $1 million pay at least a 30 percent rate on all their income, might not be campaign magic.

The Third Way poll found that up-for-grabs independent voters in swing states “prefer an optimistic, opportunity framework on the economy over one based on fairness and income inequality” by 51 to 43 percent. A supermajority of these “swing independents” say the system is already basically fair. The deficit is a bigger priority than income inequality.

Even though this group currently leans towards Obama, members identify as ideologically closer to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

The same group gives a slight edge to a generic Republican in Congress over a generic Democrat.

Obama’s campaign argues that it’s a false contrast.

“Tax fairness and promoting opportunity go hand in hand,” said spokesman Ben LaBolt. “[T]he Buffett rule asks all Americans to do their fair share so that we can reduce the deficit, build an economy that lasts and restore economic security for the middle class.”

Yet a new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that on economic issues and job creation overall, they trust Obama and Romney equally. Romney outperforms Obama on the deficit.

But there’s more to the Buffett Rule story.

Fighty-eight percent of the same swing independents believe that the wealthy should pay more in taxes because “they aren’t paying their fair share.” Sixty-one percent think the wealthy should pay more because “they have benefited from our taxes and infrastructure.”

Democratic polling done after the State of the Union found swing voters “responded enthusiastically” to the Buffett Rule.

By hammering on the Buffett Rule, Democrats force Republicans to explain their opposition to higher taxes for millionaires.

Post-ABC News polling found that voters like Obama more than Romney, trust him more to protect the middle class and think he understands their economic problems better. The “empathy gap” is not to be taken lightly, and the Buffett Rule may already have helped Obama as much as it can.

Read more on PostPolitics.com

Obama renews push for Buffett Rule

Sargent: The case Obama should make

Rubin: Romney vs. the Buffett Rule

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