Don't Fear the "T"-word

(Guest post by Emma White)

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick made the case for the importance of taxation the other day in the Washington Post, talking about the schools, roads, and other services our tax dollars pay for and closing:

     I’d like to think that the most prosperous nation in human history can have both freedom and security. I think we have reached a point where my personal success is not threatened by a program to help our parents retire with dignity. Voters are smart enough to see that taxes are one of the ways we get those things. They are the price we pay for civilization.

Patrick’s words struck me as a contrast to Democrats’ typical silence or statements along the lines of the following from Harry Reid’s website:

     I have led the fight to provide tax relief for working families, reinstate the state sales tax deduction, and reform the IRS.  In today’s difficult economic climate, I understand how important it is to ensure tax relief is focused on providing help to hard-working families, and to encouraging investment and job creation.

Harry Reid argues that the “relief” should be concentrated on working and middle income families rather than the rich, but his language accepts the idea that taxes are a problem to be solved, rather than a tool to provide services we could not pay for or arrange as individuals. 

The results of the recent deficit battle show the limits of this approach.  When Democrats are afraid to challenge the Republican idea that taxes are part of the problem, we end up with $2.5 trillion in spending cuts that will largely hurt the middle class and the poor, and no tax increases or elimination of tax breaks like those that benefit private jets for CEOs.

Public opinion data and our experience working with clients on taxes and budget issues support a two-pronged communications approach:

  • Tell us what we get for our money. The idea of cutting government spending may be popular in the abstract, but few cuts to specific government programs turn out to be popular.  Pew found in February that the only area of the budget where Americans were more likely to want decreased spending than increased spending was foreign aid.  Education, health care, energy, environmental protection, and the military are all highly valued by the public.  There is no reason to let the conversation continue to be about government spending in the abstract without discussion of what that spending actually pays for.
  • Emphasize responsibility and fairness. Americans know that we all benefit from these programs and are open to the idea that we all have a responsibility to help pay for them. One factor holding them back is the justifiable feeling that those who have the most are not paying their fair share. This is why closing loopholes (that rich people and corporations can hire the lawyers and accountants to exploit) and raising taxes on the wealthy are acceptable to the public, while they reject more broad-based tax increases. Persuade them that we can make the system fairer, and then we can start a conversation about our shared responsibility.

Will most Americans ever be thrilled about the money that comes out of their paychecks or the check they write to pay their property taxes? I’m not going to go that far. But given time and consistent message discipline, I agree with Governor Patrick: voters are smart enough to see that taxes are how we pay for things we want.


Tags: Deval Patrick, Harry Reid, Taxes (all tags)


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