Higher Taxes on the Working Poor and Middle Class? Why Conservatives Have Lost Their Minds, And the Public

Over the weekend, NYTimes.com featured a Bloggingheads.tv discussion I had with Kristen Soltis of the Independent Women's Forum about the conservative response to the “We Are The 99%” mantra of the Occupy Wall Street protests: “We Are The 53%.”

After hearing the conservative justification for complaining that the working poor and middle class don't pay enough taxes, you might ask: have conservatives lost their minds?

I'd say, yes. And the public too.

The conservative class warfare attack — that currently 47% of Americans don't pay a net federal income tax — has been hashed out plenty. You probably already know that the stat is misleading, because 90% of Americans still pay federal taxes, even if they don't pay net federal income taxes, not to mention state and local taxes.

But I don't need to bombard you with more numbers to debunk this conservative argument, because no one is buying it anyway.

Poll after poll after poll shows the public is squarely behind raising taxes on those in the top 2% income bracket. In the most recent CNN poll, 63% support higher taxes on income above $250,000, and a whopping 76% supporting higher taxes on income above $1,000,000.

In other words, “The 53% Percent” opposing higher taxes on millionaires is more like the 24%.

So we don't need to grapple with how to rebut this conservative misinformation. But it may be worth pondering why this conservative strategy is failing so miserably.

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Conservatives are very hung-up on attacking wealth redistribution. The tagline of “We Are The 53%” is: “Those of us who pay for those of you who whine about all of that… or that… or whatever.” In other words, my class is already giving handouts for your class, so shut up and stop asking for more.

But conservatives are using harsh rhetoric that was powerful decades ago in maligning recipients of welfare recipients, and trying to apply it today, during a time of severe job loss, to proposals that are not about crude wealth redistribution, but support immediate job creation, higher take-home pay and longer-term deficit reduction.

Why? Because conservatives appear to believe they are in a 1980 moment. That they can paint Barack Obama as another Jimmy Carter. That they can hang every problem around his neck and escape all responsibility for their own policy failures.

Instead of thinking about how to solve the problems that most Americans worry about today, conservatives are stuck in the 1980s telling Ronald Reagan “welfare queen” tales.

Instead of confronting how conservative deregulation created the financial crises, and how conservative tax cuts for the wealthy failed to create jobs as they claimed they would, conservative stick to their old — their musty, moldy, creaky three-decade old — talking points.

But conservatives have already succeeded in cutting taxes for the wealthy. Conservatives have already succeeded in ending guaranteed welfare assistance for the poor. So conservatives are left with fewer obvious targets for their talking points.

Combine those policy realities with the insular bubble that conservative media figures have created for themselves, you not only get conservative websites calling for higher taxes on the working poor and the middle class during a weak economy. You get conservative presidential candidates doing it too.

Conservatives are making the choice for the public very stark: do we raise taxes of the wealthiest so we can create jobs, boost wages and cut the long-term deficit? Or do raise taxes on the poorest workers, so the wealthy “job creators” can get another round of tax cuts without any guarantee they will use the money to create jobs?

Not a hard choice.