A one-trick tax pony

Fifteen years ago, I was in a congressional Democratic strategy meeting where a senior aide assessed the impact of a Republican defeat on tax legislation.

“If Republicans don’t have taxes [as an issue],” he said, “they’ve got nothing.”

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He was right. In every campaign, the GOP makes taxes its bread and butter.

In 2008, the McCain campaign was no exception. In one typical attack ad, a spooky voiceover warned that Barack Obama “promises more taxes — on small business … your family … PAINFUL taxes!”

It didn’t happen.

Last year, Democrats passed the Recovery Act, providing tax relief to 95 percent of working families — the broadest tax cut in our nation’s history. The legislation — opposed by congressional Republicans — included tax cuts for college students, first-time homebuyers and families making their homes energy-efficient.

It resulted in a record average tax refund of nearly $3,000 and — according to an analysis conducted by USA Today — meant that in 2009, Americans paid their lowest level of taxes since the Truman administration.

In March, President Obama cut taxes further — rewarding small businesses that hired new workers. That same month, Obama provided the largest healthcare tax cut for middle-class families in history, while giving small businesses a tax credit for up to 35 percent of their insurance premiums.

The Recovery Act was designed to bring our economy back from the brink — not for a short-term political boost. So instead of mailing taxpayers government-issued rebate checks to which President Obama’s name was prominently affixed — a tactic shrewdly utilized by George W. Bush — Obama’s tax cuts offered incremental increases in semimonthly take-home pay.

Resisting that political shortcut cost Obama in the polls. In a new AP-GfK poll, respondents disapproved of his handling of taxes by a seven-point margin.

But consider this: Four years ago — after the Bush rebate gimmick had faded and ordinary Americans saw their share of the tax cuts were a pittance compared with big corporations and the wealthy — a Newsweek poll showed voters disapproved of Bush on taxes by a whopping 17 points.

In a recession, tax cuts are most politically potent when they spur job creation. In April 2008, Bush policies caused the economy to shed 149,000 workers. In April 2010, Obama’s plan — geared to the middle class — added 290,000 jobs, the largest monthly job growth in four years.

And the public now sees a difference in the parties’ tax-cutting priorities. A recent Newsweek poll found Obama leading Republicans by 10 points on taxes. A March Democracy Corps survey showed Democrats with a six-point lead on “reducing the tax burden on middle-class and working families.”

It’s too early to say how taxes will play this November. But some things are certain.

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First, Democrats should cede no ground to Republicans on the issue — persistently reminding voters how Democratic leadership cut taxes for everyday Americans and small businesses. Second, our economy is on a very different path today than when President Obama took office — in no small part due to his cutting taxes the right way.

And third, if the only thing Republicans can offer voters is a return to the politics and policies that epitomized the Bush recession, in the end, they’ve really got nothing.

Del Cecato is a partner at AKPD Message and Media, the political consulting firm founded by David Axelrod in 1985. He served as media adviser and admaker for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.