No retreat on taxes

The Washington Post (print edition) breathlessly announces: “Republicans say they’ll retreat on taxes if Obama wins.” Actually, the Post’s accompanying story doesn’t quite support the headline. Reporters Lori Montgomery and Paul Kane quote only one Republican legislator who is talking about retreat, per se. That Republican is Tom Cole (Okla.), a senior member of the budget committee. He told the Post:

This [election] is a referendum on taxes. It the president wins reelection, taxes are going up; there’s not a lot we can do about that.

Cole is wrong on two counts. First, the election is not a referendum on taxes. There are many other issues in the election, and non-tax matters can easily explain the small lead Obama appears to hold. An Obama victory would be driven, the polls show, by his support among single women. Thus, the election could plausibly be viewed as a referendum on the alleged Republican “war on women.”

Obama also holds a clear edge when it comes to “foreign policy.” The fact that Osama bin Laden was killed on Obama’s watch, and with his approval, could explain a narrow Obama victory in November. Indeed, the best distillation of the case for Obama comes from Joe Biden (of all people): bin Laden is dead and GM is alive. The election can easily be viewed, then, as referendum on killing bin Laden and bailing out GM.

When it comes to purely economic issues, polls generally show that Obama holds no edge over Romney; if anything disapproval of Obama’s economic policies and positions are keeping Romney in the hunt. Thus, the election should not be viewed as a referendum on tax policy.

Cole also errs in claiming that Republicans will be powerless to prevent a tax increase if Obama wins. If they hold the House, which they will in all likelihood, their power will remain at precisely its current level.

Speaking of which, why not view the election of the House as a referendum on taxes? While presidential elections often revolve around diffuse sets of issues, House races tend to be driven by narrower concerns, including taxation. And this year, Republican candidates for the House stand pretty solidly against increasing taxes.

I don’t mean to say that if Obama wins reelection, Republicans automatically should say “no” to any and all compromise proposals designed to reduce the debt and avoid a slashing of the military budget. On the contrary, Republicans should be open to any compromise that, on balance, is favorable compared to the course on which we are headed.

But all proposals should be considered solely on the merits, without any presumption that ground must be yielded because the Democrats have won an alleged referendum on taxes.

If Obama is reelected, let’s leave the gloating to him. “You won” should not be the Republican refrain.

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