The Corner

The Myth of Fingerprints

One false claim making the rounds about the House Republicans who defeated John Boehner’s “Plan B” last night is that they don’t understand that higher taxes are inevitable. A lot of them understand that point perfectly well. Some of them have been privately advising the Republican leaders to pursue a strategy that they know would lead to higher taxes than Plan B contained.

The idea is that the House Republican leadership should permit a vote on the bill the Senate passed in July — one that extends middle-class tax rates and limits tax increases on capital while allowing the top two income-tax rates to rise. House Democrats and a few Republicans could then pass the Senate bill. The disadvantage of this plan, from the viewpoint of most Republicans, is that taxes would rise much more than they would have done under Plan B. People and businesses making between $250,000 and $1 million would be hit. The advantage that outweighs this disadvantage, according to the Republicans offering the advice, is that most Republicans would not have to have their fingerprints on a tax increase. Most Republicans would be able to vote against the bill and thus maintain the purity of their opposition to tax increases. At the same time, the bill would be enacted, so middle-class taxes would not rise, and Republicans would not be blamed for the rise.

Many of the Republicans on the other side — those who were behind Boehner’s Plan B, for example — see this stance as a matter of craven self-interest. In their view, the Republicans who are taking this line are perversely maintaining their anti-tax reputations at the price of letting taxes rise higher. Craven self-interest surely plays a role; we are after all talking about politicians. Some of them, however, also make an argument for their strategy, one based on maintaining the distinction in the public mind between the parties’ positions on taxes and holding the Democrats accountable for theirs.

On this view, the looming tax increase is the Democrats’ fault: They’re the ones blocking an extension of all the tax rates. If a bill that allows some tax increases to take effect passes with mostly Democratic votes, they will be held responsible for them—and for any ill effects they have. If it passes with a lot of Republican support, on the other hand, the party will have forfeited its anti-tax identity and the cause of cutting spending and taxes will be set back— and set back even more than it will by a larger tax increase. Indeed, a larger tax increase without much Republican support would sharpen the distinction between the parties in the public mind.

I’m receptive to arguments that presuppose that a lot of voters pay minimal attention to politics, and I’m not tied to the proposition that Plan B was the obviously right play. Still: Are there really a lot of voters who do not know that Republicans oppose tax increases on the rich? If Republicans vote for a bill that by its silence on upper-income tax rates allows them to rise, will voters really not know that they did only because Republicans were powerless to stop it? It seems hard to credit. If taxing job creators causes economic calamity, would Obama and the Democrats really be able to get a lot of mileage out of saying that Republicans supported it? I’m skeptical.

That some Republicans are willing to see higher taxes for the sake of anti-tax purity is topsy-turvy enough. Adding to the vertigo: The Republicans (inside and outside the House) who fret about blurring the party’s definition are the ones who are doing most to blur it. They are the ones who are, in most cases, accusing Republican leaders of seeking to raise taxes when they are actually trying to cut taxes as much as they think possible — cut them, that is, from the levels the law already has in place for 2013. They’re the ones who are accusing most House Republicans of  “caving” to the Democrats, even as some of them prefer that the Democrats get their way entirely. That’s where the convoluted politics of this moment have led us.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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