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Losing the Tax Debate

Romney is behind, but there's time for a turnaround.

12:10 PM, Sep 26, 2012 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
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Can a Republican candidate lose a debate on tax policy and win the presidency? The Romney campaign seems to think so.

Mitt Romney

Over the past couple of months, the Obama campaign has unleashed a barrage of TV ads that contain the same specific and potent attack: Mitt Romney will raise taxes on middle class families by $2,000 in order to cut taxes for the rich. The claim is false, but the Romney campaign hasn't really responded.  

And the attacks have been working. As the Wall Street Journal reported on September 17: "At least four polls in recent weeks have found Mr. Obama holding an edge over Mr. Romney on who would best handle the issue of taxes." The Romney campaign's pollster Neil Newhouse told reporters last week that Obama's advantage on the tax issue is simply a function of Obama's convention bounce. But Romney actually lost his edge on taxes before the conventions. "A Gallup poll in late August found Mr. Obama holding a nine-point lead on the issue of taxes, after Mr. Romney led in July," the Journal noted. 

Despite losing his advantage over Obama on taxes, Romney's recent TV ads have neither defended Romney's tax plan nor attacked Obama as a tax-hiker. "I'm not sure that voters really understand the differences between the plans that Romney has and Obama has, and I think that's one thing we're committed to trying to do moving forward is defining the differences between the two candidates on taxes," Romney pollster Neil Newhouse told reporters on September 17. But according to the Romney campaign, the only Romney ad currently running that even mentions taxes is this spot on Romney's economic plan. "Champion small businesses," Romney says. "Have tax policies, regulations, and health care policies that help small businesses." What are these tax policies? How do they help small businesses? Will they raise taxes on the middle class? Romney doesn't say.

The group Crossroads GPS is running an ad that attacks Obamacare for raising taxes on the middle class and defends Mitt Romney from the tax-hiking claim. But Crossroads' $5 million ad buy can't compete with the tax message pounded by the Obama campaign in TV ads and almost every stump speech and TV interview.

It may be late in the game, but there's still time for Romney to make a strong case for his plan and against Obama's tax hikes. And it's imperative that he makes the case during the debates, media appearances, and in paid advertising. Taxes and and spending are the government's two most powerful tools to fix the economy. If Romney loses the debate on taxes, he will almost certainly lose the debate on the economy.

The case against Obama's tax hikes is fairly straightforward. Obamacare contains 20 different tax hikes on everything from jobs and medical devices to over-the-counter medications and health insurance plans. Many of these taxes haven't yet kicked in, but they will if Obama gets another term in office. Then there's Obama's plan to raise taxes on individuals and small businesses that make more than $250,000. Raising taxes on the wealthy usually polls well, but there's a two-pronged response: One, it will lead to fewer jobs by raising taxes on small businesses, and, two, it's not an effective deficit-reduction plan.

If raising income tax rates is such a great idea, why didn't Obama do it during the two years when Democrats controlled Congress? The answer, as Obama said in 2010, is that "that would have a destimulative effect and potentially you'd see a lot of folks losing business, more folks potentially losing jobs. That would be a mistake when the economy has not fully taken off." Does the president think it's now okay to raise taxes because the economy has "fully taken off"? This is a question Obama hasn't been asked by the press, but it's a question Romney can pose during the debates.

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