The taxman doesn’t scare us anymore

While the taxman keeps coming, we now care a little bit less.

Everyone dreads April 15, but for decades, Republicans turned distaste for taxes into votes against Democrats. We were decried as the party of higher taxes, while Republicans championed Richard Nixon’s immortal slogan, “It is time to get big government off your back and out of your pocket.”

Races at all levels, at least sometimes, hinged on taxes, usually to the detriment of the Democrat. Almost every cycle, millions of dollars in ads attacked Democrats for supporting some tax or other. In 1946, Republicans developed an 18-point lead as the party better able to deal with taxes; Democrats lost 54 House seats, in part as a result. Though the question was asked only intermittently, Democrats maintained an edge as the party better able to deal with taxes through most of the rest of the ’50s and again in 1978, then through the early ’90s. However, in 1994, when the GOP opened a 10-point lead on taxes, disaster struck with Democrats again losing 54 house seats, partly as a result.

In the last couple of election cycles, though, the air has slowly, though not completely, seeped out of the tax balloon, as evolving public opinion has reduced the power of this standard GOP attack.

While no one wants to pay more taxes, the perceived burden has diminished. Earlier this month, 53 percent of respondents told Gallup the amount they paid in federal income tax was too high. Though still a majority, it represents a significant decline from the two-thirds who thought their taxes were too high in the late ’90s. In 1993, 67 percent of Americans told Harris they “had reached the breaking point on the amount of taxes they paid.” A decade later that figure dropped by 15 points. CBS found 49 percent saying they paid more than their fair share in 1997, but just 37 percent taking that position this month.

While at times the level of taxation has moved to the forefront of public concern, more often voters have been fixated on two other aspects of the issue: the waste of their tax dollars and the failure of big business and the wealthy to pay their fair share.
Voters believe vast portions of their tax dollars are wasted. Attempting to quantify that sentiment, an ABC/Washington Post poll found Americans concluding 51 cents of every dollar the federal government collects go to what I call Function 999 in the budget: waste.

That waste provokes more anger than the size of our tax bills. A Fox News poll put the question directly: “What bothers you more — how much you pay in taxes or how your taxes are spent?” Only 12 percent emphasized the amount paid, whereas 71 percent cited waste as the primary villain.

Maldistribution of the burden is taxpayers’ other prime complaint. Two-thirds told Gallup this month that “upper income people” pay too little in taxes, while 71 percent complained about corporations paying too little.

Again, complaints about big business and the wealthy escaping taxation are more salient than distress over voters’ own bills. Kaiser/NPR/Harvard altered the Fox question, asking whether people were more concerned about the amount they paid in taxes, the complexity of the system or the wealthy not paying their fair share. Just 14 percent expressed primary concern over the amount they paid, while 51 percent were most upset about the wealthy not paying their fair share (32 percent emphasized complexity).

The net result is that Democrats have once again wrested control of the tax issue away from the GOP, with Democrats now seen as the party better able to deal with the issue by margins of 8 to 14 points. Let’s keep it that way.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.