Far From Certain If Americans Want To Fix Budget Problems With More Taxes

Ezra Klein

Did American voters send a message to Washington in November, the message that they want to fix the budget deficit through higher taxes? That’s what Ezra Klein of the Washington Post has recently written, claiming Americans not only “moved the goalposts” on the sequester, but they actually want taxes to go up:

Think back to July 2011. The problem was simple. Republicans wouldn’t agree to raise the debt ceiling without trillions of dollars in deficit reduction. Democrats wouldn’t agree to trillions of dollars in deficit reduction if it didn’t include significant tax increases. Republicans wouldn’t agree to significant tax increases. The political system was at an impasse, and in a few short days, that impasse would create a global financial crisis.

The sequester was a punt. The point was to give both sides a face-saving way to raise the debt ceiling even though the tax issue was stopping them from agreeing to a deficit deal. The hope was that sometime between the day the sequester was signed into law (Aug. 2, 2011) and the day it was set to go into effect (Jan. 1, 2013), something would…change.

So far, so good. Klein is correct that the sequester was a complete punt, but then again I don’t know anyone who would really disagree with that. However, after this bit, he starts to go off the rails:

There were two candidates to drive that change. The first and least likely was the supercommittee. If they came to a deal that both sides accepted, they could replace the sequester. They failed.

The second was the 2012 election. If Republicans won, then that would pretty much settle it: No tax increases. If President Obama won, then that, too, would pretty much settle it: The American people would’ve voted for the guy who wants to cut the deficit by increasing taxes.

The American people voted for the guy who wants to cut the deficit by increasing taxes.

In fact, they went even further than that. They also voted for a Senate that would cut the deficit by increasing taxes. And then they voted for a House that would cut the deficit by increasing taxes, though due to the quirks of congressional districts, they didn’t get one.

Here in DC, we can get a bit buried in Beltway minutia. The ongoing blame game over who concocted the sequester is an excellent example. But it’s worth remembering that the goalposts in American politics aren’t set in backroom deals between politicians. They’re set in elections. And in the 2012 election, the American people were very clear on where they wanted the goalposts moved to.


What Ezra Klein does here is fall into the intellectual trap of thinking he can boil down something as markedly complex as US elections down to one thing. But you can’t. Conservative commentators failed in 2008 when they said Obama’s election was all about his skin color (i.e., liberals had to vote for him so they could prove to their friends they weren’t racist or something). There were many, many factors that played into why Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney. I’m no Nate Silver, but I can give you a quick list of several factors:

  1. Better ground game: The GOP was just pathetic when it came to knocking on people’s doors, getting out the vote, and microtargeting voters with political advertisements. “Project ORCA” was an unmitigated failure for Republicans. Simply put, Democrats were better organized, had better technology and techniques, and were on the ball. Republicans weren’t.
  2. Vicious Republican primary: The vicious nature of the GOP primary led to negatives about each candidate being brought into the light far sooner than would be if the primary was over quickly. That meant those negative points stayed in the media and in voters’ minds a lot longer than they normally would have. Statements like “vulture capitalism” from Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, describing Romney’s time at Bain Capital, did not help matters. Voters had months where Republican dirt was on their minds. They had only a few weeks for Democratic topsoil. Which do you think was more fertile?
  3. Mitt Romney was just weak candidate: Mitt Romney never really campaigned. He never felt comfortable talking to crowds. He was just a patrician who thought electoral campaigning was beneath him, and that really put off a lot of voters. Plus, he never really went on the offensive against Obama, and when he did, it always came off as rather weak, wishy-washy stuff. He just wasn’t a good candidate, period, only getting the nomination because it “was his turn.” That’s before we even get to his idiotic comments about the 47%, and all the other gaffes his campaign made. His campaign just sucked.
  4. Romney’s hypocrisy & weathervane behavior: Romney was all over the map during the primaries trying to convince the GOP base that he was the right guy to be their candidate. He veered far to the right after being a Rockefeller Republican in Massachusetts and a relatively moderate (well, compared to 2012 conservatism) conservative in 2008. By election day, who the hell knew what Romney stood for? He talked about cutting spending to fix the deficit, but then in a debate with Obama announced he was going to increase military spending by $2 trillion during his administration. He was against green projects…then said he would support them with tax dollars. He criticized education and then said he would give education more money. The guy was all over the map. Who on Earth would vote for such a guy? You would have no idea what would come out of his White House! So voters didn’t.
  5. The Obamacare/Romneycare Question: But here was the big one, which deserves it’s own point: Romney and the GOP ran on repealing Obamacare and eliminating that piece of legislation. But the GOP’s banner carrier created the fricking OBAMACARE PROTOTYPE! Why would anyone take him seriously on ending Obamacare? It was the hypocritical position of all hypocritical positions, and was so blatantly transparent it pretty much sunk his campaign right then and there. Outside of right-wing cosnervative voters, who were going to vote for the Republican even if he was Justin Bieber, people didn’t buy it and it destroyed his chance at winning.
  6. Romney’s requirement to own social conservatism: Because of the party’s stances on social issues, including the infamous addition to the GOP platform just before the convention on abortion, Romney had to own them, even though he probably wasn’t all that supportive of them. In Massachusetts, he told abortion activists he wanted to make the GOP pro-choice. Now he was saying Roe v. Wade had to be overturned, and even if he didn’t say something, if another conservative Republican said X, well, Romney implicitly stood for it. Guilt by association. This hurt him deeply when Akin & Mourdock forgot to take their anti-stupid pills while taking interviews for their Senate campaigns with their comments on rape and abortion. Guess what; Americans don’t really like that kind of social conservatism. They’re okay with gays, and while many are personally pro-life in that they don’t want to take abortions, they’re not in favor of government legislating in that area. So that definitely hurt his campaign.
  7. The Devil They Knew: When put together, Romney’s campaign was just pathetic and not a viable alternative. Although many people were frustrated with Obama, he was at least the Devil They Knew. They could not understand or guess what would emerge from a Romney administration, and they didn’t want to chance it. So they stuck with Obama.

None of these have to do with spending or increasing taxes to deal with the deficit. I don’t know if Klein realizes this but…Americans hate taxes. They don’t want to pay a lot of money for their government. They don’t want taxes to go up to fix the deficit. Not that they’re terribly interested in cutting spending either, as Doug Mataconis points out, but they’re surely not thinking the way Klein is. In fact, it’s also quite possible that the American public doesn’t care about the deficit, no matter what they tell pollsters.

The point is, elections are hideously complex beasts, like a non-Euclidean nightmare out of H.P. Lovecraft’s dreams. Trying to boil them down to a single thing, while tempting and appealing and commonly performed, is just stupid. Just because “your guy” won or “the other guy” won doesn’t mean your ideology is now shared with the majority of Americans. Sure, it might, but right now there’s just enough evidence there to suggest it is, particularly since most Americans think the government does too much stuff, and the growing segment of the population identified as “center-libertarian.”

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