By Mark Mellman - 06/14/06 12:00 AM EDT
In their illuminating study of Republican manipulation, professors Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson argue that “the 2001 tax cuts did not pass because ordinary voters wanted them.” In supporting their assertion, the two dismiss as “close to meaningless” the fact that in some 25 contemporaneous polls voters favored the Bush tax cuts by an average of 56 to 33 percent, with Gallup finding 67 percent in favor, 27 percent opposed.
Bush’s tax cuts were certainly awful public policy, increasing the deficit, mortgaging our economy to foreign bond-holders and shifting the tax burden to the middle class. Alas, that does not mean voters don’t support them.
Hacker and Pierson offer great lessons but err in their understanding of public opinion about taxes. Caution about their tax story is reinforced by last week’s California election results.
The core of their argument is that the only correct way to ask about tax cuts is in relation to spending on other programs: “The crucial issue in gauging public preferences is not how respondents answered isolated questions about support for tax cuts but how voters weighed the tradeoff between tax cuts and other … priorities.” They then adduce a series of polls demonstrating that “voters consistently saw tax cuts as a lower priority than plausible alternative uses of the forecasted surpluses.”
True, but it is they who produce the “meaningless” evidence here. When pollsters structure a choice between tax cuts and say, Social Security, the latter wins — Social Security is “more important” than tax cuts. However, voters do not believe now, nor did they believe then, that was their real choice. Voters reject the view that there was a choice between Social Security or alternative energy or education on the one hand and tax cuts on the other. Rather, by 2-1, voters maintain that if politicians simply made smart choices we could have it all — we could cut taxes and increase spending on key programs while simultaneously bringing down the deficit.
While aficionados see budget politics as zero-sum, voters do not. Voters believe, wrongly but nonetheless strongly, that hidden in the budget is what we might call “function 999” — waste, fraud and abuse — a category encompassing nearly half of federal spending. Were that the case we could in fact cut taxes, increase spending, eliminate the deficit and still have a little left over to waste. In voters’ minds the choice is not between Social Security and tax cuts but between waste and tax cuts.
Hacker and Pierson also maintain that voters objected to the tax cuts because ordinary people would not reap rewards. But the number who supported the tax cuts was 30 points higher than the number who thought they would benefit. Forty-nine percent saw gains for the economy resulting from the tax cuts, compared to just 15 percent who bought the Democratic argument that they were bad for the economy. Self-interest may be less important than broader benefits and principles.
Voters’ complex views on taxes were exhibited in bold relief during the California primary. For decades Democrats were told that if politicians raise taxes only on the rich and make clear the money will be put to good use voters will support them. Following that advice, Gov. Jim Florio (D-N.J.) saw his approval rating plummet by 20 points in 1990. A week ago, by 61 to 39 percent, Californians rejected a proposal that would have provided universal preschool by instituting a 1.7 percent surcharge on the wealthiest six-tenths of 1 percent — couples with incomes above $800,000.
Resistance to taxes does not just arise from bad Democratic language, good Republican framing or self-interest, but rather emerges from deeply held suspicions about government’s ability to spend money wisely and effectively.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.