For Republicans scrambling to find a silver lining in last week’s Supreme Court health care ruling: Fret not — the tax man cometh.
The court surprised most observers by keeping the law’s individual mandate intact by classifying it as a tax. The move makes almost inevitable a political debate over taxes, an issue on which Mitt Romney has a natural advantage as a Republican, but one he has not yet fully capitalized on.
“There is a very good reason that when the president campaigned for this legislation, he consistently campaigned that this was not a tax,” Bruce Haynes, a Republican strategist and founding partner at Purple Strategies, told TPM. “That’s because he knows it does not help him politically if this is defined as a tax.”
Taxation, a political issue long dominated by Republicans, has been somewhat of a strength for President Obama. He’s largely avoided being thought of solely as a “tax-and-spend” liberal through specific policy policy proposals, like pushing through tax cuts for businesses through the 2009 stimulus package, and tax cuts for most Americans with the payroll tax cut extension. He has repeatedly stressed his desire to only raise taxes on the wealthy, in order to pay down the debt — including pressing the so-called “Buffet Rule.”
It has paid off for Obama in the numbers — in polling done over the last three months, Obama has led Romney on the question of who would better handle taxes. See the chart below.
While the Supreme Court ruling puts Romney on shaky ground in terms of having to condemn a law based on one he once championed as governor of Massachusetts, it also gives him an opening into a comfort zone for any GOP nominee:
“It provides an opening for Republicans to do what they like to do — talk about taxes,” Doug Usher, managing director of research for Purple Strategies and former pollster for Sen. John Kerry’s presidential run, told TPM. Usher said that the ruling, combining both “Obamacare” and what they will now define as a tax increase, is a political boon for the GOP. “The benefits for Republicans are all motivational,” he said. “It [the Affordable Care Act] encapsulates everything they hate about Democrats in one issue.”
But Haynes, also offered a word of warning to his party: The key to winning on the tax issue will be to get ahead of President Obama on what those taxes are paying for — namely, the benefits of the new health care law. ABC News pollster Gary Langer also pointed this out about the tax issue: Don’t expect Americans to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to new taxes if they can clearly see what the tax is paying for:
Paying taxes, while hardly a joy, is less uniformly unpopular than is broadly assumed. (Ask Bob Dole, who ran and lost on a tax-cutting platform.) In recent polling, 58 percent of Americans say the federal income tax they pay is “about right” (vs. 36 percent too much), and 56 percent say the middle class in general is taxed appropriately (again vs. 36 percent too much) …
With the Supreme Court’s declaration that the ACA imposes a tax, the political debate turns to this: Whether or not it’s a tax worth paying.
“Taxes are a more powerful issue if they are framed as a personal economic issue,” Haynes told TPM. But, he said, Republicans haven’t effectively made that case yet. “It’s been talked about systemically, ‘Billions here, billions there on the energy, health care.’ The challenge for the GOP is to boil it down for voters on a personal level that [the new health care law] won’t yield them a person commensurate benefit.”
Kyle is the Editor of TPM Media’s PollTracker. He graduated from Beloit College (WI) and began working in politics before getting an M.A. in magazine journalism from New York University, where he interned at TPM and the website of The New Yorker.