One of the most bizarre things about our current debate on taxes is the constant tendency of commentators to predict widespread public rejection of Obama’s tax hike proposals without even bothering to engage with the multiple polls that show them to be quite popular.
Here, for instance, is Matt Bai, predicting that Obama’s newly aggressive push to raise taxes on the rich will cost him the votes of those who supported him in 2008, because it will revive in their minds fears of bad old conventional 1970s liberalism:
After several dispiriting months of watching their president try and fail to find consensus with Republicans, liberals are once again feeling buoyant this week. That’s because President Obama has at last adopted a defiantly populist tone, unveiling a proposed tax increase on the wealthy as his signature issue —for however long this particular phase of his peripatetic presidency lasts.
Even as he reassures the Democratic faithful, however, Obama is taking a significant political risk ... No matter how popular such a tax increase may be in isolation, Obama’s proposal is very likely to affirm the fears of some sizable contingent of voters who pulled the lever for him last time — fears that he is, at bottom, a conventional liberal of the 1970s variety.
The notion that Obama’s current push to raise taxes on the rich will alienate his own 2008 supporters is complicated a bit by the fact that Obama campaigned on tax hikes for the rich in 2008. Indeed, that was a topic of widespread analysis at the time: Many commentators noted that Obama appeared to be winning on the issue of taxes, even though Dems aren’t supposed to be able to do this. On the eve of the election, the Washington Post noted with wonderment that despite his call for letting the tax cut on those over $250,000 expire, “for the first time in decades, Democrats appear to have the upper hand in the debate over taxes.”
As for Bai’s reference to Obama's “peripatetic” presidency, this is one area where it actually hasn’t been all that peripatetic. This is a position Obama has held steadily for years. Obama and Dems campaigned on it in the 2008 and 2010 elections. While Obama did agree to a deal to extend the high end tax cuts, he never stopped condemning Republicans for insisting on the extension, vowing at the time to do what he’s doing now: Relitigate the fight later.
Obama is certainly going to lose a “sizable contingent of voters who pulled the lever for him last time,” but it’s hard to see why a primary impetus for this would be that he’s campaigning aggressively on the very same position he held when they voted for him last time. I’m open to the suggestion that Obama’s restatement of a position he’s held for years will suddenly revive fears of bad old conventional 1970s liberalism among his supporters, even though it didn’t last time around, but such a pronouncement is crying out for a bit of evidence to back it up.
Meanwhile, the evidence we do have tells us that poll after poll after poll shows solid majority support for raising high end taxes — including solid majorities of moderates and independents (the voters Bai is presumably referring to when he predicts desertions). I’m open to the argument — made here by Kevin Drum — that these polls don’t matter as much as we’d like, because support for high end tax cuts is “soft” and won’t be a primary motivator of voters.
But at least Drum is engaging these polls. Bai, by contrast, makes only a passing reference to the popularity of raising high end taxes “in isolation” without explaining why this is irrelevant to the discussion. I don’t mean to single out Bai — this is a broad phenomenon throughout the commentariat. At a minimum you’d think all the commentators making confident predictions about voter reaction to Obama’s tax push would at least engage these polls more directly and explain why they don’t matter.