Romney Tax Plan Poses Middle-Class With $2,000 Question

According to the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, Mitt Romney's proposed tax cuts for the affluent will require him to increase taxes on middle-class families by $2,000 a year.

Just in case you missed that the first time: If you are a wage-earner for a middle-class family, Romney would raise your taxes by $2,000. In fact, if you are among the 95% of Americans whose annual income is less than $250,000, your taxes will go up under Romney's plan.

It should go without saying that President Obama needs to focus on this issue. At a time when the economy is the top priority for most Americans, polls show that Obama's main advantage over Romney is the perception that he is more understanding of voters' problems and more interested in the well-being of the middle class. Romney, on the other hand, benefits from the belief that he is better able to accomplish what he wants and is more likely to actually fix the economy and create jobs. Given that Americans tend to blame Bush's policies, rather than Obama's, for our current economic problems (a figure that also holds up when "Bush" is lumped with "Republicans" and "Obama" with "Democrats"), it stands to reason that Romney's strength here is the result of not what he stands for, but rather the notion that he'll "get things done." Naturally, the best way to counteract this is to emphasize to voters that what Romney hopes to get done would in fact work against their best interest. Focusing on Romney's working-class tax hike would achieve that goal, while simultaneously playing to Obama's preexisting assets.

Indeed, the talking points for this issue practically write themselves. Even if one favors cutting taxes on our highest earners, it is hard to morally justify forcing the rest of America to pick up the tab. What's more, considering how the affluent already pay a lower percentage of their total taxable income than the working class, it is ridiculous to assume that our economic problems will be solved by shifting the tax burden even more heavily toward the 95%. Obama should also prominently advertise resources that voters can use to calculate how much more they'd pay under the Romney tax plan, such as this one from his own website. Finally, he should undermine Romney's credibility by highlighting for ridicule the extraordinarily feeble defense he has used so far - i.e., that the Tax Policy Center report is biased because an ex-Obama aide worked on it (despite an ex-Bush aide also serving as a co-author), and that its conclusions are null because a Romney election will ipso facto result in a massive economic boom.

The best part is that no mention needs to be made of Romney's refusal to release his tax returns. So long as Romney's working class tax hikes are in the foreground, awareness of his own murky tax record will linger on its own in the public consciousness, allowing Americans to draw their own conclusions as to why the Republican nominee won't fill in the blanks.

That said, Obama has a daunting task ahead. While the facts may be on his side, it isn't enough to simply have a persuasive argument. History is littered with the losing campaigns of presidential candidates who had stronger cases than the men who defeated them. In order to win, he must not only develop the right message, but make damn sure that message defines the overall narrative of the election.

The president has been struggling in this area for two reasons:

1. He has not been able to come up with a single message. Unlike Romney, whose campaign has maintained a steady focus on its issue of choice (i.e., blaming Obama for the economic conditions he inherited), the president has criticized Romney on a multitude of fronts. Most of the points he has raised have been valid, such as Romney's refusal to release his tax returns, his poor economic record as Governor of Massachusetts, his dishonesty in depicting his career at Bain Capital, and Bain Capital's role in laying off American workers and shipping jobs overseas. Nevertheless, it's an axiom of public relations that no message is effective if the average person can't summarize it in a single sentence. Individual talking points, like the proposed ones I listed earlier, should be logical extensions of that single sentence, not new arguments altogether. Right now Obama has asked voters to memorize a multi-point paragraph.

2. He has not figured out how to make his message dominate the news. While it is obviously necessary to present his case through speeches, press releases, and campaign commercials (indeed, his reelection team has already produced a new commercial on Romney's tax hikes), these things rarely wind up having a long-term impact on the narrative of an election. After all, voters are so bombarded with the countless ads and speeches coming from both sides that the impression left by run-of-the-mill commercials is significantly diluted. At best, these ads briefly shave a few points off one candidate's total within a key demographic or state; at worst, they fade into the background as irrelevant election year static. Likewise, the media is so accustomed to chronicling each campaign's latest salvo that only a few charges wind up becoming headline news items, with even those gradually turning into background noise after a couple weeks. This has repeatedly happened with Obama's different messages about Romney up to this point.

Since it is clear that Romney's proposed working class tax hikes give Obama an ideal rallying point for his campaign (thus solving his first problem), the president's main challenge will be to make sure this issue remains at the center of this election's narrative, and as such, in the minds of every voter who is asked to think about the stakes of this campaign.

One way he could do this is by an airing an unusually memorable campaign commercial. Even though by-the-numbers TV spots don't have much of a long-term effect on voters, history has shown that especially powerful ones can significantly alter how they perceive an election. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson evoked fears about the militant foreign policies of his opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater, by airing "The Daisy Ad," which interrupted footage of a little girl picking petals off a daisy with an ominous mechanical voice that dissolved into a mushroom cloud. Nearly a quarter-century later, a political action committee affiliated with Vice President George H. W. Bush's campaign played upon racial tensions by criticizing the prison furlough system supported by his opponent, Governor Michael Dukakis, with a commercial that prominently featured the face of an African-American rapist named Willie Horton, who had escaped under that program. Although neither ad stayed on the air for very long, both became indelibly linked to the public image of the men they targeted and contributed to their defeat.

Obama could also try to find a strikingly newsworthy way of focusing the nation's attention on the Romney working-class tax hikes. When President Andrew Jackson was up for re-election in 1832, he used his sharply-worded veto of the rechartering bill for the Second Bank of the United States as a manifesto for his ultimately victorious campaign. More than a generation later, President Grover Cleveland turned the 1888 presidential election into a referendum on tariff reform by devoting his entire 1887 State of the Union message to that subject (as my Masters Dissertation explains, Cleveland's message galvanized the party behind him and helped him win the popular vote, although Benjamin Harrison won in the Electoral College due to voter fraud). Sixty years after that, President Harry Truman used his acceptance speech at the 1948 Democratic National Convention to call for a special session of Congress so that the Republican-dominated body could either pass necessary economic legislation or be held accountable to the public for their obstructionism. When they did the latter, Truman used that to his political advantage, linking the "Do-Nothing Congress" to Republican candidate Thomas Dewey and finishing the election with a triumphant upset.

Of course, it doesn't ultimately matter how Obama makes the Romney working class tax hikes front-and-center in this campaign. What's important is that the 2012 election becomes, insofar as the average voter is concerned, a choice between a president who fights for all Americans and a candidate who wants to force the working class to pay thousands more in taxes to benefit the affluent. Obama must frame this election as a $2,000 question so that he can defend not only his presidency, but the people he has sworn to serve.