A “Reasonable Conversation” about Voters, Taxes, and Campaign Strategy

Most anyone who’s talked politics with me after the sun’s gone down knows about my obsession with the intersection of bad policy and good politics. One of the common themes of these rants is about taxes: the conventional wisdom for decades has been for candidates to compete over who wants to cut taxes the most, without acknowledging that tax cuts necessitate either spending cuts or budget deficits. It’s an incredibly simple equation, but few candidates ever acknowledge the tradeoffs involved.

My instinct has usually been to blame the voters. The only reason candidates would do this, I figured, was because voters are willing to believe they can really get something for nothing, that taxes only serve to line the pockets of government bureaucrats and politicians (and don’t pay for, say, Social Security or education). So you can imagine my surprise at seeing this today:

http://www.pollster.com/blogs/us_national_survey_pewnational.php

The brief summary: Pew did a national poll which found that only 30% of respondents wanted to extend all of the Bush tax cuts, while 27% wanted to repeal them for the wealthiest taxpayers, and the plurality (31%) wanted to repeal ALL of the tax cuts (including, presumably, the ones which affect the respondents themselves!).

This is pretty amazing. We could argue to no end about the reasonableness of (effectively) raising taxes during a recession, but that’s not the point. Nor are the exact numbers themselves gospel–I imagine more than a few respondents are reacting to the “Bush” part of “Bush tax cuts”, and the option of sticking it to the unspecified “wealthy” does summon the populist rage in a bipartisan fashion. What’s really important here is that, while Democratic lawmakers are clamoring to get on the tax cut bandwagon (or off of the tax increase bandwagon, if you’re thinking about attack ads), Americans appear willing to have a reasonable conversation about taxes—that is, one in which raising taxes is at least on the table.

“Willing to have a reasonable conversation”… I won’t begrudge anyone who wants to call me cynical for that one. But in political science, this is actually one of the most fundamental questions: do voters know what’s best? We know that many voters are not particularly well-informed when it comes to policy, and as such, will often use shortcuts (including partisanship, endorsements, and candidate behavior) in deciding their vote. And in their defense, this is a perfectly rational thing to do–given the influence a single voter has over the political process, becoming well-informed about policy is simply not worth the effort for anyone who doesn’t enjoy the process for its own sake. And moreover, even those whose job it is to make policy still require the services of experts when considering proposed legislation, because the scope of government policy-making is too broad for anyone to have a full understanding of all its parts. So expecting the average voter to have a robust understanding of policy is not particularly reasonable.

In reality, the outcome is always somewhat muddled–voters vary widely in the amount and quality of information they hold about policy, and act accordingly. But given the pocketbook appeal of tax cuts and the public’s general disdain for government spending (waste and inefficiency aside, most everyone’s tax dollars at least partially fund things they oppose), along with the pundrity’s dire warnings against raising taxes in a recession, it’s remarkable that a clear majority of voters are open to raising at least some taxes. And moreover, many are willing to pay more out of their own pockets. I’d have to see more data to see what this means:

  • is it the budget deficit worrying voters?
  • do they want better services (healthcare, Social Security, education, or others) and are tired of hearing that there’s no money for them?
  • are they simply reacting against the Bush-era economic policies in general, in light of their results? (The same poll shows that only 29% think Bush’s economic policies would be better right now than Obama’s.)

Regardless where it comes from, though, this trend in public opinion (assuming it’s confirmed by subsequent polls) throws the conventional wisdom on its head. There’s been talk of Obama and the Democrats in Congress attempting to steal the populist mantle back this fall by campaigning on a platform of increased taxes on the rich (a theme from Obama’s 2008 campaign, as well) and using the revenue to rein in the deficit and help out the working and middle classes. Until now I’d been doubtful–the attack ads and talking points write themselves–but perhaps it’s not as crazy to propose raising taxes as it once was. Now we just need to wait and see which candidates have the cajones to actually try it.

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