The Power of Political Narrative

Greg Sargent, whose Plum Line blog is really one of the best political blogs on the Interwebs, has a good post up today poking holes at Matt Bai’s latest effort at High-Broderism. Bai makes the following assertion about Obama’s support for tax increases on the wealthy:

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.

As Greg wisely points out, this argument is contradicted by a whole mess of evidence. A) Obama ran for President on a platform of raising taxes on the wealthy in 2008 B) There is tons of public opinion data (nicely assembled here by Sargent) that suggests voters want Congress and the President to raise taxes on the wealthy.  Indeed, if there is any issue on which Obama is probably vulnerable of being defined as a conventional liberal of the 70s variety it is on spending – and not taxes. Hence the White House’s almost maniacal focus on achieving a grand bargain with Republicans during the debt limit negotiations.

But having said all that Bai has a point (ish). Public opinion polls that suggest voters want higher taxes are certainly powerful, but what’s even more powerful, particularly for low-information voters, is the dominant political narrative around taxes. And let’s face it; if there is one narrative that defines our national discussions about taxes and spending it is that Democrats like to raise taxes and Republicans like to cut them.

For example, as the President likes to say all the time, during his first two years in office he cut taxes for 95% of Americans . . . and yet poll results showed that less than 10 percent of Americans knew their taxes had gone down, while a third think they went up. (The rest think their taxes stayed the same). In addition, six in ten Americans think the country is over-taxed . . . even though taxes are at their lowest level since the 1950s. Part of this is no doubt a result of low-information voters being low-information voters – but it’s also a result of Democrats being generally perceived as the party of higher taxes.

So while Sargent is right that Obama ran on raising taxes in 2008 – and it didn’t seem to hurt him very much – his tax proposals were heavily constricted. Only those making more than $250,000 would pay more under Obama’s plan; and of course the President repeatedly bragged that most Americans would pay less in taxes even though US tax rates are historically low. There are of course all kinds of reasons why Obama took such a position, but I’ll go out on a limb and argue that it’s because he was afraid of being tarred as a tax-and-spend liberal. Only by threatening to soak the rich (albeit quite tepidly) and offering to cut middle class taxes was he able to neutralize the tax issue.

It’s also worth remembering that in the Fall of 2010 when Obama wanted Congress to have a vote on ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and extending it for the middle class he couldn’t even get a Democratic Congress to hold a vote on it because they were afraid of being attacked by Republicans as “tax hikers.”

So the narrative is nothing if not powerful and pervasive.

But here’s why I think Bai ultimately gets this wrong – Republicans have fundamentally weakened the power of their tax narrative by adopting such an extreme position on taxes. As I wrote over the summer, it’s not some form of political hyperbole to accuse Republicans of keeping tax rates low to be their number one priority – it’s a fact. If you look back at the debt limit debate the one issue on which Republicans absolutely refused to bend was tax cuts – even if it meant sending the country into default. Of course, it wasn’t even a 1-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax hikes that they rejected. By some accounts, more than 80 percent of the cuts would have come in spending and the rest in revenue increases.  Yet, that was still unacceptable to Republicans.

As a result it has become much easier for the White House and Democrats to portray Republicans as handmaidens of the plutocratic class; because it actually happens to be true! Democrats now have a handy response to charges that they want to increase taxes on everyone – they only want to raise them on the rich. And while they’ve used such defenses in the past because of the GOP stubbornness on the issue today — and because of the sense that the deficit is a serious national crisis — the Democratic counter-argument resonates far more deeply than it has before.

Indeed, a very similar thing happened with the Republicans and national security. For years, the GOP was by far the most trusted party in keeping America safe and standing up to the country’s enemies. Then the Iraq War happened and the Republican advantage was squandered – so much so that a Democratic presidential nominee who opposed the war in Iraq would not only suffer from taking such a position, but in fact prosper. That the Democrats and GOP are today reasonably evenly matched on national security (indeed at this point Democrats probably have the advantage) is a testament to the extent to which the GOP threw away perhaps the most powerful advantage in all of American politics.

Now granted in order to “win” on national security Obama felt the need to escalate on Afghanistan so clearly this isn’t a done deal yet – and on taxes, Obama’s “class warfare” approach of taxing the wealthy is a nod to the continuing power of the GOP’s tax rhetoric.

Nonetheless, it’s important to remember that while political narratives are powerful things, they are not immutable.