Has the GOP become the Tax-The-Poor Party?

In the late 1850s, a Northern performer began playing what he thought was a humorous and biting tune about the South. In less than a decade, to his shock and horror, Dixie became the unofficial anthem (and label) of the South itself. I’m wondering if Rush Limbaugh feels the same way about his 1991 April Fool’s Day rant in favor of taxing the poor…because the Republican Party appears to have made Tax-The-Poor its one consistent economic policy – to its and the nation’s peril.

Contrary to what it might seem, this realization did not hit me with John Cosgrove’s victory last night (although perhaps the inspiration to post did). Cosgrove defeated Stearns (my preferred candidate) for many reasons, some of which Brian Kirwin describes in detail here. That said, the nature of that race – namely that Stearns himself needed to run to ensure an anti-tax-hike candidate was even an available choice – is yet another symptom of the larger disease that is damaging the party: to wit, a desire to avoid reducing the size and scope of government by making poor Americans and Virginians cover its cost.

Moreover, this should not be seen as an indictment of one wing of the party, or a salvo in intra-Republican arguments. The entire party – economic and social conservatives, moderates and “RINOs”, and anyone else I may have missed – are culpable in this, including yours truly.

Admittedly, those who have supported the various GOP-backed tax increases in Virginia seem to be the worst offenders – emphasis on “seem”, because even those of us who are not in that group have shown a refusal to acknowledge the problem, let alone address it.

Think back to last year, when all of the arguments regarding the expiring tax cuts focused on the income tax rates. Obama wanted higher ones; the Republicans didn’t. Everyone quickly assumed their usual positions (such as they were) on taxes.

Yet when Obama asked to extend the payroll tax reduction and Republicans demanded he drop it, hardly anyone in the GOP uttered a word in protest: not the economic conservatives, not the social conservatives, not the moderates, not the “RINOs”, not the squishes.

Why were we all so comfortable letting a tax cut for the poor expire?

Closing in on Virginia, just about every tax increase proposed by Republicans or enacted with Republican support involved taxing the poor, and not lightly (even the 2004 income tax hike in Virginia, whose highest rate begins at $17,000 a year, hit poor Virginians, and the higher sales tax that year certainly did). How have tax-hiking Republicans tried to fund their transportation “fixes” in the past? Higher gas taxes or higher sales taxes. How did they “fix” it this year? Higher and broader sales taxes. Who feels the effect of these regressive taxes the most? The poor.

As for those of us on the opposing side of these tax increases, how have we made our arguments? To be fair, I can’t speak for all, but I can speak for myself, and I have focused largely on the dynamic portions of the economy, and how they are slammed. I have focused on how the regional tax increases were tax-the-rich in disguised. I ripped the lack of budget discipline. I talked about misguided road priorities and dysfunctional systems.

And my posts railing about the effect of the tax hikes on the poor? Don’t bother looking, even I know they’re not there.

We are rapidly approaching a new and dangerous consensus on the size and growth of government: i.e., big is back. The only arguments we seem to be having is whether the rich should foot the bill (as the Democrats contend) or the poor should (as Republicans increasingly contend). However, turning the Republicans into the tax-the-poor party has horrific consequences.

Firstly, as I’ve hinted above, it politically institutionalizes big government. The distance between America and Europe can really be described in one policy: the Value Added Tax. Without it, the half-social-democracy-half-corporatist-democracy we have built is unsustainable within a decade. With it, the thing can wheeze forward for a generation or more – long enough for our children and grandchildren to assume that this era was the economic equivalent of the Wild West.

Moreover, it marginalizes poor Americans politically. Was there any discussion of the poor in the 2012 presidential campaign? Has there been any in the current races this year? Are we really that convinced, as Republicans, that we have nothing to offer the poor but higher tax bills? The poor have to deal with big government as much as we do – in many cases, more so. They know as well as anyone how inefficient, demoralizing, and draining of human capital it really is.

Finally, it puts us at immediate electoral disadvantage. If the Democrats talk about higher taxes for the richest 5%, while Republicans talk about taxes for the poorest 25%, we’re 20 points behind from the get-go. Not smart.

The Republican Party has much to digest from the last year, and we need to ask, as a party, what we wish to be. There can be several answers, good and bad. I humbly submit a tax-the-poor platform is just about the worst of the lot.

Cross-posted to Bearing Drift

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