Remembering “Fuzzy Math”

DENVER – The great paradox of modern tax politics is this: Raising rates on wealthy people is popular, and yet no one’s been able to do it. Not since 1993. I’ve been thinking about this as I’ve been writing a piece about Romney’s successful moderate feints last night, starting with this portion of his tax answer. Remember: Romney’s been saying he will cut the tax rates by 20 percent, and end deductions.

I will not reduce the share paid by high-income individuals. I know that you and your running mate keep saying that and I know it’s a popular thing to say with a lot of people, but it’s just not the case. Look, I’ve got five boys. I’m used to people saying something that’s not always true, but just keep on repeating it and ultimately hoping I’ll believe it. But that – that is not the case. All right? I will not reduce the taxes paid by high-income Americans.

This sounded odd, and The Atlantic’s Molly Ball and I asked Romney strategist Stu Stevens about it when the debate was over. “He’s said that over and over, a million times,” said Stevens. “The wealthy would not pay less in their taxes. The amount that they contribute would not be less. That’s not inconsistent at all.”

I don’t know. It sounded like yet another blown opportunity for Obama to get specific about a slippery idea. And the playbook was right there, ready to be opened. In 2000, a great deal of the first debate – the one largely remembered for Al Gore’s sighs – was spent on tax cuts. Which candidate would give you, dear voter, the most money back from the surplus? And George W. Bush insisted that his cuts weren’t top-loaded.

He’s trying to scare people in the voting booth. Under my tax plan that he continues to criticize, I set one-third. The federal government should take no more than a third of anybody’s check. But I also dropped the bottom rate from 15% to 10%. Because by far the vast majority of the help goes to people at the bottom end of the economic ladder. If you’re a family of four in Massachusetts, making $50,000, you get a 50% cut in the federal income taxes you pay. It’s from $4000 to about $2000. Now, the difference in our plans is I want that $2,000 to go to you, and the vice president would like to be spending the $2,000 on your behalf.

After Gore attacked again, Bush reiterated: “After my plan is in place, the wealthiest Americans will pay a higher percentage of taxes then they do today, the poorest of Americans, six million families, won’t pay any tax at all.” This simply wasn’t true. With the cuts in place, the wealthiest Americans paid lower rates on income greater than $250,000.

This is the depth of the Democratic nightmare. Not only did Obama miss a chance to nail Romney, he did worse than Al Gore had when the exact same argument came up.