Opinion

Can Republicans escape the tax trap?

So far, against every temptation, the GOP has resisted mounting pressure from Congress, the White House, and their powerful media allies, all of whom are intent on raising taxes. The super-sized failure of the super committee might undo all that. Without a grip on their first principles, Republicans could lose much more than a tax fight or two.

Unable to blame a Koch, the left has turned its guns on a dime and trained its fire on Grover Norquist, that handy human embodiment of establishmentarian anti-tax orthodoxy. “Republicans chose to keep their pledge to Grover Norquist,” Nancy Pelosi raged, “to protect the wealthiest one percent at all costs.”

Hype like that would defeat itself in a normal world, but ours is a time far removed from the one that saw the GOP slash rates for all Americans during the Bush era. For years, Republican tax orthodoxy thrived in a climate of wild spending and swelling deficits. Now, with sympathy for the Occupy movement holding strong despite its many detours into violence and squalor, the orthodox approach has reached its shelf life.

It’s far from clear, however, where the GOP has to go. The match-up between rhetoric and policy that once served the party so well has set a political trap dangerous enough to keep the White House in Barack Obama’s hands and doom congressional Republicans to the most abysmal of approval ratings.

It’s a trap that leads Republicans off message as the party of (relative) fiscal responsibility. Conservatives, including current presidential candidates, are decrying the huge number of Americans — some 47% — who pay no federal income taxes. No surprise, they lament, that voters who contribute so little would vote for the party that gives them what others produce! But as Keith Hennessey and Ramesh Ponnuru have explained, the dramatic increase in the number of supposed “freeloaders” (they pay other important taxes) is the fault — if we’re now calling it that — of Republicans, who pushed for the per-child tax credit under Clinton and expanded it under Bush.

Critiquing the 47%, of course, comes off as a clumsy way to shift the spotlight off of the so-called “wealthiest Americans.” Wherever you draw the line, whoever’s on the richer side is, by definition, the wealthiest. Democrats have crudely and deliberately drawn it so as to tar, say, a family of five with two low-six-figure earners with the same brush of luxury and privilege as Warren Buffett.

But Republicans have let themselves seem to argue that fiscal responsibility is doomed unless we ensure that Warren Buffett himself doesn’t pay more taxes. So John Kerry is able to sigh that the super committee “could not overcome the Republican insistence on making tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans permanent.”

To top it off, Republicans now appear to believe that the middle class will collapse if it isn’t propped up with government subsidies, taking the moral fabric of America down with it. Tax cuts, it turns out, aren’t even enough. Once we’re in the territory of tax credits, however, we’re off to the fiscal irresponsibility races, with both parties using the tax code not as a way to raise revenue for the basic functions of government (however defined!) but as a way of social sculpting and behavioral manipulation.