As we enter into yet another round of budget discussions, the Democratic Party is confronted with an opportunity - and a challenge. There's an opportunity to shift the budget debate to an area where they hold the high ground. But it will be a challenge for some Democrats to take the initiative on a subject they seem reluctant to discuss.
The subject is taxes.
Tax increases are a subject people seem reluctant to mention in the nation's capital. Republicans have convinced everyone inside the Beltway that new tax revenues are politically impossible. The talk on the Hill is that the White House is urging Senate and House Dems to accept a cuts-only budget deal for the next go-round. It seems that the conventional wisdom says tax increases are best left unmentioned.
But the conventional wisdom is wrong.
New polling by Hart Research Associates, conducted for Americans for Tax Fairness, confirms and amplifies findings from earlier studies showing that Americans strongly support higher taxes for the wealthy and corporations. And when we say "strongly," we mean very strongly.
As that covert recording of Mitt Romney showed last year, some of the "1 percent" think other Americans aren't pulling their own weight in this economy. As this new polling confirms, the feeling's mutual. By a seventeen point margin (56 percent to 39 percent), the American people want the next budget agreement to include new tax revenues from corporations and the wealthy.
And despite the conventional wisdom which suggests that "moderates" reject tax hikes, the Hart polling shows that moderates actually want these tax hikes -by an overwhelming forty-two point margin. Registered independents, often thought of as the Holy Grail of electioneering, back them by a nineteen point margin.
The conclusion is inescapable: if Democrats make this budget battle a fight over who has the smartest spending cuts, they're fighting on the Republicans' turf. That will weaken them as they enter the 2014 campaigns. But if they make this a fight over taxes and jobs, that's a fight they can win.
How would this play out in the real-life Battle of the Budget? Before the backroom dealing takes place, there's always a period of public posturing. Every time the Republicans talk about spending, the Democrats need to bring up taxes. Every time the Republicans talk about cuts, the Democrats have to hit them with the same lines, over and over and over:
"Why are you protecting the rich?"
"Stop protecting offshoring corporations."
"If you really care about deficits, why keep all these tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy?"
When the talk turns to cutting "entitlements" - Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid - Democrats will be on even firmer ground. When given a choice, 70 percent of Americans preferred offsetting the sequester cuts with tax increases for the wealthy and corporations. Only 12 percent thought they should be offset by reducing future Medicare and Social Security spending.
Many of the spending cuts being put forward by Republicans, along with some of those being proposed by the White House, are unpopular with voters. 85 percent of those polled opposed asking seniors pay more for Medicare. 83 percent opposed cuts to Medicaid coverage. And 67 percent - more than two thirds of those polled - opposed the "chained CPI" Social Security cut.
Democrats may be tempted to soften the blow for themselves by speaking of "entitlement cuts" rather than "cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid." That's understandable, "entitlement cuts" don't provoke the same negative reaction that "cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid" do. Well, forget it, Dems. In the twelve months remaining until the next election, they'll have plenty of time to figure out whether or not these programs were cut - and who went along with it.
Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat who heads the Senate Budget Committee, recently wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post which proposed ending some corporate tax loopholes and using part of the revenue to restore sequester cuts to health, education and other vital programs. She's on to something. The loopholes she describes are urgently in need of repair.
Sen. Murray is also right to propose using the revenue raised from closing tax loopholes to fund important government programs. The public strongly agrees with that approach, and not with another idea that currently being floated around the nation's capital - that of using revenue raised from tax loopholes to reduce overall tax rates for corporations and high earners.
That idea's a loser with the public. An overwhelming 82 percent of the public would use the money raised from these loopholes for government "investment" and deficit reduction. Only 9 percent of those polled supported the idea of using this revenue to reduce overall tax rates for corporations and the wealthy.The investments described in the poll include "making classrooms less crowded, improving roads and bridges, and making us energy independent." They're not just good for the country on their own merits.These investments also create jobs. And Democrats urgently need to shift the debate back to jobs - because jobs are urgently needed, and because their own political fate probably depends on finding a message that resonates with voterz.
Fortunately for Dems, job creation still polls extremely well. By more than a two to one margin, voters polled by Hart preferred a budget approach which emphasizes jobs over one which focused only on the deficit.
With polling numbers like these, why would Democrats focus on spending cuts rather than on job creation funded by taxes from the wealthy and corporations?
In another important finding, pollsters found that the public trusts Democrats over Republicans when it comes to "In whom do you have more confidence to have the right approach in trying to reach a budget agreement dealing with government spending and taxes?"
But that margin of confidence in Democrats could be stronger. If Dems are going to win the trust of more Americans, and earn the trust of those who already believe in them, they're going to have to shift the debate away from spending cuts in toward jobs and taxes. That means resisting the conventional wisdom, an act of courage for which they could be richly rewarded in next November's election.