Viewpoint: Where Republicans Are Going Wrong On The Fiscal Cliff

They are heading for defeat by focusing on taxes instead of government spending

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Gary Cameron / Reuters

House Speaker John Boehner makes a brief statement to the media at the Capitol in Washington, Dec. 19, 2012.

Republicans are heading toward defeat on the fiscal cliff, but not for the reason they think. The failure is not that they will have to allow taxes to increase, but that they will no longer be seen as a watchdog for taxpayers and the party of less wasteful Washington spending.

To most Americans, the cause of our budgetary woes is not about taxes at all. It’s about a wasteful Washington culture that can’t stop spending. In a poll we conducted on election night for the Republican Main Street Partnership of voters nationwide, Americans are clearly more in favor of budget cuts rather than tax increases — and the one dollar in tax hikes for one dollar in budget cuts deal that is currently under discussion will be overwhelmingly rejected by Republicans and Democrats alike. While the public does endorse some tax increase and does want an agreement reached, even among Democrats, there’s far more support for trimming the budget than raising taxes.

(MORE: The Making of a Cliffhanger)

Republicans are missing the bigger picture.  In traditional polls, people often say that the two issues they care about most are jobs and the deficit, but in the focus groups I have conducted for Fox News and CBS News and for various corporate clients over the past 100 days, what seems to matters most to Americans begins with the question: “Can America afford the path we’re on?” 

Affordability is how Americans process their anxieties, not by isolating issues but by personalizing what it means to live a lower quality of life. “Can America afford the path we’re on?” encapsulates everything — jobs, spending, the debt, and a growing fear of the future. President Obama’s approach to that question, and to the fiscal cliff, is to demand tax increases on the rich, declaring that the top two percent aren’t paying their fair share.

But there’s another question, equally as powerful, that would have put Congressional Republicans on sturdy footing: “Who is fighting for hardworking taxpayers?”  Notice that I didn’t say “middle class.”  That phrase — and all the imagery around it — was bought and owned by the Democrats decades ago. (Democrats also own “working Americans,” “the working class,” and any phrase that has “class” in it.)

(MORE: Why the Fiscal Cliff Negotiations Are More Complicated Than We Think)

The problem: “Middle class” and “working class” are both political speak. That’s how politicians label us, but it’s not how we identify ourselves or talk to one another. We say it’s about “people like me” and “folks like us.” And we want someone to listen, understand, and fight for us as we work hard every day just to survive. That’s why “fighting for hardworking taxpayers” is so much more compelling than “fighting for the middle class.”

Instead, the GOP decided to focus its appeal on behalf of small business owners. But while almost everyone considers themselves a “hardworking taxpayer,” only a fraction of America considers themselves a small business owner.  The GOP is protecting the wrong victim — and by a whopping 72% to 28% margin, the American people know it.

Republicans also made a big mistake by allowing the fiscal cliff narrative to be about taxes rather than government spending. By defending tax cuts for the rich, they are proving the Obama election narrative that they only care about the few.

It comes down to a difference between “tax” and “take.” Most polls show roughly 70% support for taxing the wealthy more, but ask Americans if they think government should “take” more and the answer is no. Taxing more is acceptable because people think the rich avoid what they should be paying. But the government taking — and spending — more is unacceptable because we earned that money and should have the right to spend it ourselves. If Republicans ever want to get back into the White House, they need to pick their battles a lot more carefully to be in line with how real Americans think and feel. And they will need a new language to go along with new policies.

MORE: Why We Should Go Over the Fiscal Cliff

16 comments
DJ
DJ

It is not all Republicans, it is not all Democrats, it is not just the President.  Each elected official has his own political agenda:  to get re-elected or to ensure his party gets elected to his seat when he leaves.  It is time we tell our elected officials that they should be treated as each and every other American.  If we don't do our jobs or repeated fail to work as a team to accomplish the goals of the majority, we get fired.  We should all contact our Senators and Congressman, as well as the White House, and let them know we're going to vote Independent, Libertarian or any other available political party.  We should let them know we will do everything possible to ensure their seat goes to someone other than the representative of their political party.  We need to take away the power inherent in holding a Republican OR Democrat stance.  The partisanship on both sides needs to end, and it needs to end this week.

DirajRobinson
DirajRobinson like.author.displayName 1 Like

I  truly dont uderstand the thoughts of some people welfare, social securiy, human services are not the high percentage of the budge. The high percentage is The House, whch is Congress. Our taxes go to their constant raises, Their Social Security Retirement which is 100 % of their highest salary. Their perfect medical that pays for them and their family. Their travel expenses. Their unlimited credit card for extravagant meals and hotel accommandations. Their fabulous 4x4's and hgh mainteance cars. Their business attire. All compliments of us taxpayers. Now after we have paid taxes all thru our life for them they want to cut Social Security for the elderly. Do we get a fabulous health plan when we retire like Congress, do we get 100 % of our salary  for socal security. It's time for the Republican House to stop looking at our pockets and look at what they can do to cut their pockets. How about Congress follow the same laws they put on us.  

pughce
pughce

Unfortunately for Republicans, many Americans are mildly curious of this boogeyman the "Fiscal Cliff". Republicans have eroded the trust that people have with them - it is getting very transparent for us to recognize when we are being manipulated.

An additional thought to add is that potentially keeping taxes low may not be the only way for Americans to continue to enjoy their quality of life. -"The rising tide lifts all boats"...

Oh, and nice tactic attempting to befriend the reader - "folks like us", ha!

MarcusTaylor
MarcusTaylor

This commentary is nonsense. We can cut our military spending IN-HALF ... and still spend 3 times more than our nearest competitor "China".  Further, Republican President Ronald Reagan raised Taxes 11 times and then signed into law "The Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982", THE BIGGEST TAX INCREASE IN THE HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES!

Yet he still "tripled" the National Debt.  So the message is ... IF YOU'RE A REPUBLICAN THE DEBT DOESN'T MATTER!

Leftcoastrocky
Leftcoastrocky

"Our country’s funding for mental-health services has only gotten worse since the 2008 recession. As the National Alliance on Mental Illness has been warning for some time, the existing level of funding is inadequate, so our nation’s ability to identify and care for the severely mentally ill has been hamstrung."

Leftcoastrocky
Leftcoastrocky

Where is the proposal for trimming the bloated defense budget?

Leftcoastrocky
Leftcoastrocky

But the public does not want their SS or their Medicare to be trimmed.

worleyeoe
worleyeoe

What a joke. You start out talking about how certain people are certain our budgetary woes have more to do with spending than taxing. Then you go on to suggest a 1 to 1 ratio of cuts to taxes will be rejected. Can you please explain why you think this is? I have an idea. It has nothing to do with what the common person thinks, no matter what you might want to call them, middle-class or hardworking taxpayer. It's going to get shot down, because Obama does not like that ratio. Rather he wants something closer to $.50 to $1.00 in spending cuts to tax increases. So if Americans were so sure of our spending problem versus tax problem, then we'd all be screaming to tell Obama to wake up and push for more spending cuts rather than trotting out the veto option for what would be $1T in tax increases. Good gawd, even Grover Norquist has tacitly sanctioned Plan B, which goes against every ounce of political being the man posses.

Frank, you have absolutely no idea what you're talking about. The reality is that most American's are going to trying to protect their pocket books. They'll somehow want the government to cut spending and raise taxes on everyone but themselves, which is a zero sum game.

Leftcoastrocky
Leftcoastrocky

"there’s far more support for trimming the budget than raising taxes"  in the abstract, maybe, but not when you talk specifics such as cutting back on social security or medicare.  Luntz, why didn't you have some specific proposals for what programs to cut?

DrinkerOfTheRye
DrinkerOfTheRye

@Leftcoastrocky Right, we like $10 of government for $6 in taxes.

Leftcoastrocky
Leftcoastrocky

Medicare eligibility changes won't bring a savings, just a cost shift to individuals and small businesses and also a cost increase

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

"While the public does endorse some tax increase and does want an agreement reached, even among Democrats, there’s far more support for trimming the budget than raising taxes."Sure they are.  Until you ask them precisely WHAT they should "trim".  Then all of the sudden it's "Keep your hands off my social security and medicare!"  Despite the fact that those two made up 43% of the 2011 government spending.  Oh, and don't shrink the budgets on roads and hospitals and schools, or anything else people see.  And while some will talk about reducing military expenditures (19% of the budget), most don't really know what changes we should make in order to knock that down in any significant way.  Others will say we should cut welfare (13% of the budget) like food stamps, but there's only so far you can cut on that before people will start complaining about having more homeless people on the streets.Face it, folks, the 18% of the budget of "discresionary" funding (including hospitals, roads, and schools) isn't the only place where cuts need to occur.  It also has to happen in the "big four":  welfare, social security, medicare/medicaid, and the military.  But it has to happen in a SMART way, cutting what we can most afford, without annihilating lives or destroying our country's long-term ability to grow.  And it's also never going to work by itself.  We're going to need to take in more tax revenue.  We know the tax rates in the late 1990's weren't killer, since the economy was rocking.  Let's go back to those, or at least plan a gradual return to those over a few years.  You can't have your cake and eat it too.

j45ashton
j45ashton

Good God, Frank.  How can you write anything and expect to have any credibility at all when you have made your reputation as a word & phrase manipulator/propagandist for Republican causes.  You're the 'climate change' guy, right?  Terms used to palliate Republican stands against 'global warming'.  (BTW Frank, climate change could mean it's getting warmer or colder.  It ain't getting colder.  Global warming is the more accurater, and dare I say the more truthful term.  And I believe you're the guy who coined the term 'death tax' over 'estate tax' to help save your rich Republican friends keep more money than they really need.  Come on, Frank.  Stick to what you know...praying on people's weaknesses by manipulating phrases.  And please...just do it in forums like Fox where you have more than willing dupes.  For the rest, your commentary is just an insult to our intelligence.

SudeepKanjilal
SudeepKanjilal like.author.displayName 1 Like

Ok Frank, this will be more meaningful if in that focus group, those folks like us also identified what to cut. So, please let us know the top 3 things.

Its easy to say - cut government waste. We don't have any section in our  budget that is labled - government waste. And if you are a serious person, you will admit that EVEN if you are able to identify the waste and cut them, you will not get more than 10% reduction.

There is no scenario under which this can be done painlessly - either tax go up, or benefits are cut, or both.

CharlesThielman
CharlesThielman

Republicans seem bent on sticking to their extremist guns on every issue, magnifying their minority status. Bummer. Also, bad for our country-- and they call themselves patriots. Naysayer fissures / in sandstone, temporary / blue iris at dawn

altamar
altamar like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Frank, everybody says they want to see cuts in government spending, but the fact is that when you ask SPECIFICALLY where to cut -Defense?, SS?, Medicare?- you get a consistent no, no ,no. And although the Republicans make a lot of noise about reducing government, not a single Republican president, even when they have controlled the House and had the power and opportunity to do so, have reduced government; quite the contrary, every single one, including Reagan, have increased spending. And even now, Boehner refuses to name entitlement cuts and wants Obama to be specific. So, if nobody really wants to cut expenses then the only solution, no matter how unpalatable, is to end up raising taxes. We have become a nation too spoiled with spending and nobody wants to cut back. So, taxes will have to bridge the gap.