SANDWICH, Ill. — On Wednesday morning, as his tinted black bus pulled into Randy Hultgren’s congressional district, President Obama told residents that Republicans like Hultgren must be willing to raise taxes to reduce the deficit.
A few hours and 90 miles away, Hultgren’s own constituents had picked up the message, repeatedly hectoring the freshman congressman at a town hall meeting to raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations.
“We have clear information that . . . tax cuts, especially to the super rich, has not increased any more jobs,” one man told him. “I want to know under what conditions you would be willing to consider increasing taxes, especially on those who can afford it? ”
“I just have one question for you tonight,” said another. “Did you sign Grover Norquist’s pledge to never raise taxes?” — referring to the promise that has been signed by most congressional Republicans, including Hultgren.
“Don’t you have the confidence in your own ability in Congress to make up your own mind? You need Grover Norquist to tell you?” the man continued.
It is a scene that has been repeated at town hall meetings across the country this August as Democrats make a concerted effort to use this month’s congressional recess to change a national narrative on taxes.
For years, it has been Republicans who have wanted to talk about the issue, winning elections promising not to let government take more from voters.
But since the showdown over raising the debt ceiling, Democrats have been unusually eager to embrace tax increases, gambling that voters will see the Republican refusal to consider higher taxes for the wealthy as recalcitrant and out-of-touch.
“Silence has been Democrats’ main political strategy since the mid-’90s on this issue,” said Michael J. Graetz, a professor at Columbia Law School who has studied the tax issue. “What’s happened is people’s consciousness has been raised that cutting spending may mean serious cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. And that has had at least the potential to change the politics of the tax issue.”
At the town hall in Sandwich, Hultgren, a soft-spoken fiscal conservative who grew up above his father’s funeral home and leans more toward the calming tone of a grief session than the heated rhetoric of a tea party rally, calmly explained again and again that he believes higher taxes inhibit economic growth.
“I made a commitment to my constituents during my campaign,” he said of his 2010 victory over a Democratic incumbent. “I was very clear: I said I will not raise taxes.”
As a new joint congressional committee, created as part of the recent deal to raise the debt ceiling, looks for $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction, Hultgren said he thinks that Congress must earn the respect it has lost with the public by showing it can get serious about shrinking the government.
“People say let’s raise taxes and cut spending,” said Hultgren, who voted against the debt deal. “I say let’s cut first. Let’s prove ourselves. Let’s do what we need to do.”
But pushed on the issue, he offered something of an opening. He said he was willing to “look at” ending subsidies to oil companies and closing tax loopholes.
“Let’s make our tax system flatter and fairer,” he said. “Let’s clean up the tax code.”
Democrats dubbed their efforts “Accountability August,” targeting vulnerable Republicans through radio ads, billboards and phone banks in an effort to convince voters that the GOP wants to save tax breaks for millionaires and subsidies for oil companies at the expense of Medicare.
But a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee insisted that the town hall reaction has not been coordinated. “People are responding because they are outraged about the priorities,” said Jesse Ferguson, DCCC spokesman. “The president and congressional leadership have made sure that those are well-known. But the response is stemming from constituents.”
Democrats have been buoyed on the tax issue by poll numbers showing that a clear majority of Americans support higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations to reduce the debt. In July, a Washington Post-ABC poll found that 72 percent of respondents favored raising taxes on those making more than $250,000 to reduce the deficit.
Democrats have found new moral support from billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times this week titled “Stop Coddling the Super-Rich,” in which he argued that higher tax rates should be imposed on capital gains earned by the mega-wealthy.
Buffett’s words have quickly become a town hall staple, read aloud to Republicans, including Hultgren. Those videotaped confrontations and others have been quickly uploaded on the Internet and eagerly catalogued by political operatives in Washington.
Two hundred people, some chanting, confronted Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) at a town hall in Kalamazoo this week. That prompted Upton, who will serve on the new congressional committee, to say he is open to closing tax loopholes, according to the Kalamazoo Gazette.
Over the weekend, Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), who is considering running against Hultgren in the 2012 Republican primary because both of their districts have been altered through redistricting, also faced a crowd that asked for higher taxes.
“I don’t want to increase taxes,” he told them, according to the Northwest Herald newspaper. “I want to increase taxpayers.”
Democrats appear to hope the “tax the rich” message will help them capture some of the populist spirit that has animated the tea party movement. Republicans denounce it as a call to class warfare.
With political groups on both sides urging their members to attend town halls, the meetings do not necessarily reflect the totality of the feedback members of Congress hear from their constituents.
Before pulling up to Sandwich’s City Council chamber, in a storefront facing the railroad tracks that run through town, Hultgren held a full day of meetings with community groups in nearby DeKalb.
At Northern Illinois University, students asked him to protect federal tuition grants. At City Hall, the mayor and other public officials asked for help completing a road-widening project and shoring up a levee. The manager of a small airport took Hultgren for a ride down the runway in a sport-utility vehicle and then told him that he’ll soon be asking for help to repave the strip.
Even as Obama was characterizing Republican resistance to raising the debt ceiling as the product of a broken political system, no one asked Hultgren about his vote against the increase. And no one asked him to raise taxes.
“These are a lot of people who are active — we see them at protests and things,” Hultgren, after the town hall, said of the attendees, several of whom said they had been encouraged to attend by Northern Illinois Jobs with Justice.
“But you know what?” he said. “That’s good. That’s what this is about — giving them opportunities to talk.”