But by all means, let's keep obsessing over tax increases on rich people, which would take care of roughly eight percent of this year's federal deficit -- at best. Let's take a peek at the data itself, then discover how Politico chose to boil it down into a narrative-driving headline:
Your headline? "Battleground Poll: Hike Taxes on the Rich." Don't get me wrong; there is no shortage of disappointing information packed into that infographic. (1) A large majority supports the president's proposed tax increase on the rich, despite its negligible revenue impact and high likelihood of killing jobs. That's been par for the course since the election. (2) People are also in favor of raising taxes on "large corporations," even though that would have a deleterious effect on hiring, and many of the associated increased costs would be passed down to them, the consumers -- to say nothing of the international competitiveness issue. (3) And while means-testing Medicare is a mixed bag, the no-brainer of raising the Social Security eligibility age is wildly unpopular. On the encouraging side, the public understands that maintaining a robust national defense is a core, Constitutionally-mandated role for the federal government. They soundly reject the concept of trying to balance the budget at the expense of our continued and overwhelming military superiority. Women, especially, have become more hawkish about the near-sanctity of our defense budget in recent years. But take a look at that final line item. The broadest consensus -- by far -- on any question asked in that poll formed around the need to "cut government spending across the board." This general sentiment obviously becomes more complicated when specific cuts are proposed (see: the same poll), but there is a widespread recognition among the American populace that spending has gotten out of hand and needs to be reined in. Democrats drone on about the importance of returning to the "Clinton-era tax rates." They never, ever discuss Clinton-era spending levels. President Clinton's FY 2000 budget called for $1.77 Trillion in total federal spending. This year's deficit exceeds $1 trillion. President Obama's latest budget proposes $5.8 Trillion in annual federal spending by decade's end, accumulating trillions in new debt along the way -- all despite a slew of tax hikes. And then, there are the towering unfunded liabilities. It's true that Republicans are holding a weak hand right now, but their message of spending restraint remains resonant and widely popular. Meanwhile, Barack Obama is asking for increased spending and more stimulus. This is deeply unpopular. He's also seeking unilateral control to blow through the debt ceiling whenever he sees fit. This, too, is strikingly unpopular (via The Hill):
According to the poll, 59 percent reject the president’s demand that Congress give up power to set the country’s borrowing limit. Thirty-nine percent said the president should be the sole decision maker.
The trouble is, according to the same survey, voters see Obama and Democrats as the "more reasonable" party in fiscal cliff negotiations (by a significant 12-point margin). Republicans have an image and messaging problem. As long as voters continue to see them as intransigent and unreasonable -- no matter how fair-minded and proactive their proposed solutions may be -- the GOP will be unable to exploit its natural advantages over Democrats on spending discipline. As John Boehner and company navigate these waters over the next few weeks, optics must be a top consideration. Sure, they ought to avoid giving away the store, and they should attempt to limit economic damage to the extent that they're able. But if Democrats are hell-bent on these purely symbolic, counter-productive tax increases, Republicans must keep their fingerprints off of that outcome -- even if they don't actively block it. This way, they can argue, "we opposed Obama's tax increases, which haven't shaved the deficit by almost anything. But he demanded them, and he got them. We chose not to obstruct his ill-advised plan because the fiscal cliff was at stake. But here we are now. Over-promising and over-spending is still the fundamental problem, and it's getting worse. The president has his tax increases on the rich. Now we must tackle the much larger problem." Even the latest round of discouraging polling indicates the public would be receptive to that message, and Democrats have no answers on the spending front. Why? Because their plan is to spend more and to tax everyone more to (partially) pay for it. The sooner Republicans can start demonstrating that reality, the better.