Opinion: The GOP’s folly over tax rates

The politics of the “fiscal cliff” debate in Washington are now completely one-sided.

Americans overwhelmingly favor lowering the debt with both budget cuts and tax hikes — 74 percent, according to a Pew poll done last week.

But despite that loud, bright political signal from the voters, the GOP majority in the House remains adamant in opposing higher tax rates for the top 2 percent.

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The political question is: Why?

Why are Republicans, who regularly condemn the nation’s high debt, ignoring the overwhelming call by the voting public for higher taxes on the rich as a central part of the answer to lowering the debt?

Republicans are doing so much damage to their own political brand that some conservatives are now saying this must be a trap set by President Obama.

Here are some weak but often repeated explanations for the breakdown:

• It is about those pledge cards — from conservative activist Grover Norquist — promising to never raise taxes.

• It is fear of Tea Party activists using any tax hike against Republicans in 2014 primaries to defeat incumbents.

• It is the memory of President George H.W. Bush losing reelection after saying “Read my lips, no new taxes” and then raising taxes.

None of those theories is strong enough to explain why Republicans remain dead-set on committing political suicide.

There is one better theory.

The lead Republican negotiator in the budget talks, Speaker John Boehner, put it this way:

“As I’ve said many, many, many times – I oppose tax rate increases because tax rate increases cost Americans jobs … that will not change.”

Now that argument, at a time of slow economic recovery from a deep recession and high unemployment, might have some political traction. 

But post-election opinion polls uniformly show Americans are not persuaded by Boehner’s argument. 

According to the latest Politico/George Washington University Battleground poll, despite persistent high unemployment, 60 percent of Americans favor raising income taxes on those making more than $250,000 per year. Only 38 percent are opposed. 

Pew’s latest polling has an even higher percentage of the public, 69 percent, approving of raising taxes on those with incomes over $250,000.

And those heavy, one-sided numbers are damaging the Republican brand. Fifty-three percent of those polled by Pew described the GOP as “more extreme in its positions,” than Democrats.

Pew also reported that 55 percent of Americans agree: “Obama is making a serious effort to work with Republicans,” on a budget deficit deal to avoid the fiscal cliff. Only 32 percent say the Republicans are sincerely trying to work with the president. Pew also finds that Obama’s approval rating, post-election, is now at 55 percent, up 11 points since last January. 

So to put a sharp point on this debate, the public overwhelmingly is of the opinion that Speaker Boehner is wrong. 

The voters agree with Obama’s call for higher taxes on the rich while maintaining the Bush tax cuts for 98 percent of taxpayers.

And history indicates the public is right. High marginal tax rates on Americans with high incomes did not prevent job creation or economic prosperity in the past.

The top rate during the Eisenhower boom years of the 1950s was 91 percent. It was 70 percent under President Nixon in the early 70s and 69 percent under President Reagan as the economy grew out of recession and produced jobs.

President Obama’s proposal to raise the top rate to 39 percent is equal to the rate under President Clinton in the 1990s when Wall Street reached record high levels and the economy produced lots of jobs.

At that time, Republicans made the same mistake of saying a 39 percent top marginal tax rate would kill jobs.

“The Clinton plan is a one-way ticket to recession,” Sen. Phil Gramm (Texas) said in 1993.

“I believe this will lead to a recession next year,” Rep. Newt Gingrich (Ga.) said in 1993.

But higher tax rates did not prompt any recession. They led to a strong economy and Clinton’s reelection.

This time around, there are wise political hands trying to pull the GOP off the edge of their own political cliff.

Former Mississippi Gov. and Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour recently said on MSNBC:

“[As] a Republican, I would take raising the rates on the two top brackets if, in return  …  we had entitlement reform.”

Even a strong, partisan conservative voice — Ann Coulter — has been appealing to Republicans. 

Sparring with Sean Hannity on Fox News, she alluded to the fact that Obama campaigned by calling for higher taxes on the top 2 percent.

“If the Bush tax rates are repealed and everyone’s taxes go up, I promise you Republicans will get blamed for it,” Coulter said.

Some in the GOP insist on denying this reality even as they dangle over a political cliff. The question remains: Why? So far, there is no answer.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.