Commentary Magazine


Tax Cuts, Talking Points, Silly Maneuvers

So this afternoon, the lame-duck House of Representatives — still controlled by Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats — pulled a fast one by using an already existing bill as the vehicle for a vote on the Bush tax cuts in the way they want to vote on them, with the top rate jumping up while the others stay constant. This is pointless, since negotiations continue between the president and Republicans that everybody thinks will lead to a compromise bill that keeps all the tax cuts in place. That bill will have to be taken up at the beginning of the next session instead of now, which will create accounting headaches but not make all that much difference. Republicans voted against the trick.

It’s a nice piece of theater, I suppose, and it led Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos, the premier website of the populist hard left, to quote approvingly on Twitter from a follower of his: “If Dems were any good at messaging, they’d be all over TV saying Republicans just voted to raise taxes on 95% of Americans.”

Oh, Democrats will, and there will be screaming and yelling on cable shows about it. But there’s a simple reason “messaging” like this doesn’t work. It doesn’t conform with reality. People who care about these things know that Republicans are for lower taxes, and they know this because it’s true.

You can make a case that the Republican fondness for lower taxes is fiscally irresponsible, or it’s bad because government needs more dollars to fund social programs, or any number of other complaints. But saying Republicans are supporters of higher taxes is like saying Democrats don’t care about the environment. You can say it, and you can even offer little bits of evidence to prove it (the Kennedys blocked wind farms on Cape Cod), but it doesn’t ring true and people won’t believe it.

Indulging in the belief that politics is about “messaging” as opposed to core beliefs is one of the great temptations for people whose own views are not actually that popular and wish to believe the problem is just one of communication rather than essence.