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.
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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.)
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.