I suspect a lot of politicians and talking heads and reporters will treat President Obama’s renewed push to allow the high-income Bush tax cuts to expire as deja vu. And in their defense, there’s some overlap between what’s about to play out in the political realm, and what happened in 2010, when Democrats fractured over the issue and agreed to extend all the Bush tax cuts for two years.
But the story’s actually much different now, and that mostly has to do with the fact that this time around Republicans have a presidential candidate on the ticket. Not just any presidential candidate, either, but one who personifies the class of super-rich that benefited from the Bush tax cuts so much more than everybody else.
Here’s why that matters.One piece of this story that’s playing out exactly as it did two years ago is that congressional Republicans have once again adopted a legislative strategy that more or less amounts to hostage taking. They’re happy to renew the middle-income Bush tax cuts — tax cuts that, by the way, apply to everybody, including rich people — but only if tax cuts benefiting only the wealthiest Americans are part of the deal. If Dems don’t agree to that, then Republicans will block everything in between and allow all the tax cuts to expire, including for regular folks who can’t really afford it in this economy. Indeed, the broader economy can’t really support all that fiscal contraction — which is why we constantly hear dire warnings about the threat of the so-called “fiscal cliff” at the end of the year.
Last time around, nobody really had to answer for that strategy — nobody with any real accountability anyhow. This time around Mitt Romney will play that part. And he’s going to have little choice but to own the hostage taking. There’s almost no conceivable way the right will give him enough berth to dodge the issue, let alone break with Congressional Republicans. This is the core of the GOP’s identity, and the single biggest organizing principle uniting the Conservative movement.
So here we’ll have Mitt Romney — the millionaire outsourcer guy who claims to believe wealthy Americans are already doing just fine — saying it’s appropriate to hold the middle-class’s tax cuts hostage until the yacht-owning set that finances his campaign gets its tax cuts too.
There may be some nimble Republican politician out there who could dance around this problem, but I don’t think Mitt Romney can. Which is why the fight will be so clarifying and, I assume, why the White House and Obama campaign seem eager to relaunch it.
In the end, the legislative politics that determine what actually happens to the Bush tax cuts will be shaped by the election. Obviously, if Republicans win they won’t need to take anything hostage. But I doubt that’s enough to protect Romney from having to answer for the strategy as it exists right now. And I don’t think screaming “tax hike!” will suffice.