House speaker John Boehner today, in proposing his “Plan B” to avert the fiscal cliff, proposed raising tax rates on America’s millionaires. It’s perhaps no accident that this is a proposal Democrats themselves put forward almost exactly two years ago, when New York senator Chuck Schumer introduced a bill on the Senate floor that was quickly dubbed the “millionaires’ tax.”
The New York Times reported at the time that Schumer and his colleagues settled on such a tax in part for its public-relations value: The issue, said the Times, could be used as a “political bludgeon” against Republicans. “Just as the death tax sort of put Democrats on the defensive on the estate tax,” Schumer said, “the millionaires’ tax is putting the Republicans on the defensive on tax policy.” He went on to say that the millionaires’ tax was “a potent issue with the public.”
On the Senate floor, Schumer said, “I would like [Republicans] to come to the floor and defend holding everything up for a tax cut for the millionaires. We are willing, and many of us — I know the senator from Missouri and myself — are saying, ‘Give the tax cut to the middle class but not to the wealthiest among us,’ not because we don’t like them, not because we don’t admire them but, rather, because they are doing well, we have a deficit, and we have other problems.”
Schumer’s Democratic colleagues echoed his sentiments. Missouri’s Claire McCaskill said that hearing Republican opposition to the bill made her feel like she was “in the twilight zone.” “It’s depressing to me that we have gotten to this level of posturing, that they are saying if you do not give people a tax break on their second million, that nobody gets one,” she said.
The millionaires’ tax failed in the Senate, garnering the votes of only the 53 Democrats in the chamber. New Jersey senator Frank Lautenberg said, “What I am looking at today, I think, is a great American travesty.”
Though Schumer’s proposed tax was defeated, it did prove effective as a public-relations strategy. When Newsweek published a piece headlined “Republicans Hold Senate Ransom for Rich Tax Cut,” Schumer showed off the magazine on the Senate floor. “I want to read this headline to the American people,” he said. “And this is not a Democratic publication. ‘Republicans Hold Senate Ransom for Rich Tax Cut.’ Let me repeat that. ‘Republicans Hold Senate Ransom for Rich Tax Cut.’ I couldn’t have said it better myself.”
As the negotiations on the fiscal cliff proceed, the House Republican caucus might look to Schumer and his fellow Democrats for inspiration.