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September 08, 2011 10:20 AM ‘I don’t want to raise taxes, but…’

By Steve Benen

An increasingly popular argument in conservative circles is that not enough Americans pay income taxes. In last night’s debate, Brian Williams, to his credit, posed the question to Mitt Romney: “[Y]ou often hear this figure, 47% of Americans pay no federal income tax…. Isn’t some of this argument semantics? And won’t the effort to correct that be a de facto tax increase?” The former governor’s response was pretty interesting.

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For those who can’t watch clips online, the first part of Romney’s answer was that he has “a bit of a hard time with the idea that there are people who don’t feel like they’re supporting our troops by contributing tax revenue.” He added, “I don’t want to raise taxes on the American people, but I think everybody ought to feel that they’re part of this effort and that they’re providing for our military, providing for our roads, providing for our schools.”

If I’m the Perry campaign, I’d plan to make great use out of the line, “I don’t want to raise taxes on the American people, but…”

Whether Romney wants to admit it or not, he’s effectively calling for higher middle-class taxes. Indeed, Romney is apparently eager to correct what he sees as a problem, going so far as to argue that lower-income earners “don’t feel like they’re supporting our troops.” Really? They don’t? How would Romney, a multi-millionaire, know how these families feel about supporting the military, which includes many volunteers from working-class communities?

In case anyone’s forgotten, the relevant details matters here: millions of Americans may be exempt from income taxes, but they still pay sales taxes, state taxes, local taxes, Social Security taxes, Medicare/Medicaid taxes, and in many instances, property taxes. It’s not as if these folks are getting away with something — the existing tax structure leaves them out of the income tax system because they don’t make enough money to qualify. Indeed, many are retirees.

Romney has “a hard time with the idea” that these folks end up owing nothing in income taxes. If Romney’s the nominee, expect the Obama campaign to take advantage of this.

As for the second part of Romney’s answer, he boasted that he’ll look out for the middle class by allowing those “earning $200,000 a year and less ought to be able to save their money tax-free, no tax on interest, dividends, or capital gains.” And how much would that benefit the average, middle-income earner? About $70 a year. No, that’s not a typo. Romney wants to give massive tax breaks to the wealthy and corporations, but his idea of boosting the middle class is a tax break that hardly matters at all.

That Romney was the smartest, smoothest candidate on the stage last night is more a condemnation of the GOP field than praise for the former Massachusetts governor.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

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  • sick-n-effn-tired. on September 08, 2011 10:25 AM:

    After catching Buddy Rhomer on Rachel and the Daily show , I wish they had invited him to shake things up. I listened to him and he sounded...OMG sensible. It would have been interesting watching the clown circus explode.

  • chrenson on September 08, 2011 10:26 AM:

    Just another example of how the current economic crisis is being sold to conservatives as somehow the fault of poor and middle-income families.

  • Sam Simple on September 08, 2011 10:29 AM:

    If Romney is the "smartest and smoothest" candidate on the GOP side, it is more of an example of the adage that, "in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man will be king"!

  • Speed on September 08, 2011 10:29 AM:

    The low-income earners ARE the troops, you idiot.

  • wondering on September 08, 2011 10:30 AM:

    I wish someone would do an analysis of how many military personnel fall into the group of people who pay no taxes. Given how little enlisted military make, I suspect many if not most of the lower ranks fall into the no-income tax group. Kind of hard to argue they don't feel like supporting the military...

  • bdop4 on September 08, 2011 10:34 AM:

    "After catching Buddy Rhomer on Rachel and the Daily show , I wish they had invited him to shake things up. I listened to him and he sounded...OMG sensible. It would have been interesting watching the clown circus explode." - S-N-E-T

    That's why he wasn't invited. He would have ruined the whole vibe if he had made everyone look like the bloodthirsty idiots they are.

  • Josef K on September 08, 2011 10:35 AM:

    That Romney was the smartest, smoothest candidate on the stage last night is more a condemnation of the GOP field than praise for the former Massachusetts governor.

    Agreed, but I just had a terrible thought.

    Romney doesn't appear to have much staying power. 'Polished' performance here aside, I can't think of anything memorable to the man that would placate the GOP's rank and file. He seems almost fragile sometimes in his appearances and inspires no confidence that I can see.

    What if Perry mounts enough of a campaign against Romney that he bows out of the race entirely? What happens then?

  • Jane Kuenz on September 08, 2011 10:43 AM:

    The poor give their sons and daughters to our wars.

  • T2 on September 08, 2011 10:47 AM:

    Romney was also more polished and smoother than John McCain. Again, I'll say this: if the GOP wanted Romney, they'd have picked him over McCain. Unfortunately for mainstream (yeah, oxymoron) GOP they now have let the Crazy Genie out of the bottle and may have no way to get Mitt into the convention with the most votes. I'm sure all the GOP bigwigs gulped big-time when Perry started his rant against SocSec. Believe me, Perry is just getting started. Absent any serious GOP pushback against his "Ponzi" remarks, Perry will be emboldened to keep going further and further out the TeaPary limb. And he will, in a heartbeat.
    My take on his performance last night was simple - if America wants another George W. Bush, one that's at least as dumb, vindictive, fake-tough and even more crazy, then Rick Perry is the guy.

  • c u n d gulag on September 08, 2011 10:48 AM:

    And let's not forget the sacrifice that Millionaire Mitt's sons made for the war effort:

    They worked on Mitt's campaigns throughout the 00's!

    A greater sacrifice has no man ever asked his sons...
    ________________________________________

    OK - the F*CK am I supposed to read some of that CAPTHCA CRAP!
    How can ANYONE!!!
    Jesus, you really do want less commenters and readers, don't you, Steve?

    And don't tell me to his the audio - that sounds like the voices coming from the 'Great Beyond' in some horror movie!

  • Grumpy on September 08, 2011 10:49 AM:

    Criticism of the narrow tax base is an implicit criticism of the Bush tax cuts, which were sold as a way of eliminating income tax liabilities for millions.

    Broadening the tax base is not a bad idea, but raising taxes on the poor to offset tax cuts for the rich is obviously stupid.

  • Ken on September 08, 2011 10:56 AM:

    If Social Security and Medicare don't count as taxes, then there can't be any objection to making all income subject to them, right? I expect removing the $100,000 (or thereabouts) limit, above which no FICA and Medicare are paid, would do wonders for the fiscal health of the programs.

  • Rich2506 on September 08, 2011 10:59 AM:

    Interesting comment about people not "supporting the troops" by not paying (You're right, the essential qualifier to add to "taxes" is "income") taxes. Uh, both the Afghanistan and the Iraq Wars were paid for with deficits. After the evident failure of the Second Battle of Fallujah to deliver a knock-out blow to the Iraq insurgency, G.W. really should have raised taxes, as it was then clear that the war was going to last for awhile. Our current president did well to put the war costs onto the regular budget, but he would have done even better to have charged the really rich guys for the war. If I was the president, I would have publicly thanked the wealthy businessmen who paid extra taxes to support the war effort, brought 'em up to receive medals and such. By emphasising how much extra the war was costing them, it would have been no time at all before the businesspeople were funding anti-war demonstrations.

  • Michael A on September 08, 2011 11:02 AM:

    Property tax is a pass through tax that is included in rents. In other words, paid by all but the homeless.

  • Sacsuxs on September 08, 2011 11:04 AM:

    You know,

    I hear two different arguments from right-wingers about taxes.

    1) Estate tax. - two individuals say to eliminate the estate tax because an obstreperous family member, according to them, blocks any attempts to avoid taxation through my suggestions.

    2) "Welfare" - at least one wants to eliminate "entitlements" because they know family members who take advantage of those systems.

    Combining both, I see that "they" want big government to step in and "fix" their own ethical family problems.

    Am I the only one seeing this bigger picture?

  • ComradeAnon on September 08, 2011 11:15 AM:

    I wonder if Romneys plan to drop the taxes on interest and dividends on those making $200,000 or less EXCLUDES incomes above $200,000? Maybe he's not telling us everything about his plan. (Or maybe its just hot air since it won't amount to a hill of beans in revenue lost anyway.)

  • square1 on September 08, 2011 11:39 AM:

    I agree with the above commenters about the troops who fall into the zero tax bracket. I'd like to hear a lot of these Republicans explain whether they would prefer that these troops pay more taxes or whether they would support increasing their pay (As a general rule, Republicans love to spend tax money on defense contractors. The troops? Not so much.).

    That aside, this is one of these issues where Democrats tend to be incredibly stupid.

    Americans believe in fairness. They don't like the idea that they pay taxes and the guy down the block doesn't pay any.

    Yes, you can explain that people who do not earn enough to pay income tax still pay sales taxes, various excise taxes, and, directly or indirectly, property taxes. But that is a defensive argument. Why do Democrats want to play defense in perpetuity?

    Instead, neutralize the argument. Just have a minimum tax. Make it $5. End of debate. Hell, for bonus points, tie it into a minimum corporate income tax.

  • damselfly on September 08, 2011 12:06 PM:

    Most of the elderly on Social Security can exclude some or all of their SS income from federal taxes. Repealing that benefit would definitely bring in more tax revenue...so when Romney complains that everyone needs to pay their fair share I think he means that we could get more from grandma and grandpa.

  • JW on September 08, 2011 12:29 PM:

    Boston Globe
    June 24, 2007

    "..Romney, who has said he would have served if he had been drafted, shed some light on his view of the matter in a recent interview with the Globe.

    "I really donít recall thinking about political positions when I was knocking at the door in France" as a missionary, Romney said. "I was supportive of my country. I longed in many respects to actually be in Vietnam and be representing our country there and in some ways it was frustrating not to feel like I was there as part of the troops that were fighting in Vietnam."

    At the same time, Romney said, he was influenced by the statement of his father, then-Michigan Governor George W. Romney, who said in 1967 that he had been "brainwashed" by US officials about Vietnam. "When my dad said that he had been wrong about Vietnam and that it was a mistake and they had been brainwashed and so forth, I certainly trusted him and believed him," Romney said.

    The exemption for Mormon missionaries created controversy at the time. Non-Mormons in Utah filed a lawsuit against the federal government in 1968. The suit was still in court two years later, at a time when "the church and the Selective Service System work hand-in-hand in deferring the missionaries," according to an article from the period published by The New York Times...".

  • Texas Aggie on September 08, 2011 1:05 PM:

    Don't forget to make the point whenever this BS about 47% don't pay income taxes that 100% also don't pay income taxes on that amount. Remember marginal tax rates?

    If you want to make the poor pay income tax, then you'll have to raise the taxes on everyone with earned income by lowering the cutoff for zero income tax.

  • The O on September 08, 2011 1:27 PM:

    Romney is so compasionate. He feels so sad for those people who make so little money as to not be able to pay income taxes and feel like they support the troops. The solution, of course, isn't to increase the wages these people get, but, to increase their taxes so they feel like they belong. Awwww, that's so nice of him.

  • toowearyforoutrage on September 08, 2011 3:13 PM:

    Like "The O" and others, I'd like to have every American pay at least a nickel in income tax just to shut down this irritating, compelling talking point.

    Granted, Earned Income Tax Credit would probably be used to claim negative taxes paidand to some degree they'd be right.

    A proper living wage as the minimum wage might circumvent this problem, but the GOP opposes that too.

    Their goal, whether they know it or not, is to strangle the poor on the foolish assumption that the poor will do nothing to defend themselves. The poor are so very rude in that way. They refuse to recognize the impossible nature of their existence and simply walk out of the igloo and disappear.

  • Jake on September 08, 2011 3:17 PM:

    Good comment from Texas Aggie.

    The other thing I wonder: in years when I had a regular job and ended up owing no income tax, I got a refund. But the government had possession of my money that was withheld until my refund. That's a form of income tax, I think--I was forced to loan some of my income to the government for a period of possibly more than a year. I'd like to know how much money these free loans from "non taxpayers" adds up to.

  • Nancy Irving on September 10, 2011 1:09 AM:

    We all know that enlisted personnel are paid a subsistence-level wage, and that thousands of military families qualify for food stamps.

    It is very unlikely that these families make enough to have to pay income taxes.

    Maybe Romney thinks they're not doing enough to support the war effort.

  • Peter, USCG Retired on September 12, 2011 1:44 PM:

    The Iraq war is a rich man's war but a poor man's fight.

    Romney is too old to volunteer now, but his two youngest children aren't. Given what he says about "supporting the troops," he should encourage his sons to serve.

    (His older children may still be eligible if they have special qualifications, such as medical degrees.)

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