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.”

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 ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump taps vocal anti-illegal immigration advocate for State Dept's top refugee job The federal judiciary needs more Latino judges Obama plans to use Netflix deal to stop political divisiveness MORE “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.

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.