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Buffett Rule: Could it backfire on Democrats?

Polling suggests that taxing the rich might not be a winning issue for President Obama in November.

Democrats in Congress and President Obama are ratcheting up their efforts to cast Republicans as out-of-touch elitists by championing the “Buffett Rule” — a proposed bill that would require Americans making more than $1 million in income to pay a minimum 30 percent federal income tax.

Democrats will put the measure to a vote in the Senate next week in a move timed roughly to coincide with the April 15 deadline to file federal income taxes. It is intended to turn the screws not only on Senate Republicans in tight reelection contests but also on Mitt Romney, Mr. Obama’s all-but-certain GOP challenger, who earned $20.9 million in 2011 but paid federal taxes at only a 15 percent rate. 

The Buffett campaign has one simple mission — “embarrass Republicans” — says Stan Collender, a budget expert at Qorvis Communications in Washington. 

Yet polling suggests that taxing the rich might not be a winning issue for Obama in November.

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While the Buffett Rule is widely popular — more than 6 in 10 Americans support the measure, according to a March Reuters/Ipsos poll — the larger economic argument centered around “fairness” may be problematic for the independent voters who are often crucial in presidential elections. 

Among voters without a strongly held opinion of either Mr. Romney or Obama, 80 percent said they’d be more likely to support a candidate focused on economic growth and opportunity, while 15 percent said they would choose one emphasizing income inequality, according to a poll released Monday by the centrist Democratic group Third Way.

Asking a similar question, the poll found that 51 percent of so-called swing independents favored a candidate arguing for an economy based on opportunity, while 43 percent opted for one making the case for an economy based on fairness.  

Making up about 15 percent of the electorate, swing independents currently favor Obama to Romney, 44 to 38 percent, Third Way’s poll finds. Yet it also argues that those voters are ideologically closer to Romney — and may be inclined to favor Romney’s rhetoric of an “opportunity society” focused on lowering taxes and government regulations. 

For now, Democrats are banking on the Buffet Rule’s populist appeal. The rule is named for folksy billionaire investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett, who has been a staunch advocate for a rule that would make him pay at a higher tax rate than his secretary.

“Given the fact that it’s Warren Buffett, it’s got this nickname that’s easily understandable, a beloved icon saying ‘my taxes should be raised,’ it’s an easy thing to explain and should therefore be pretty effective out on the campaign trail,” says Mr. Collender.

But conservatives are confident when it comes to comparing the president’s desire to give Americans a “fair shake” with Romney’s focus on “opportunity.” 

While 59 percent of Americans say upper-income earners should pay more in taxes, that’s down from 77 percent in 1992, according to an analysis of Gallup polling data by Karlyn Bowman, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

In addition, the percentage of Americans who say the rich pay too little has declined during the last two decades, while the share who say the poor pay too little has risen from 8 percent to 21 percent, according to AEI’s findings. 

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“The Buffett Rule is certainly superficially very popular, but there isn’t much indication that tax issues, tax reform issues, or even taxing the rich has as much intensity as jobs, unemployment, or other issues,” says Ms. Bowman.

Republicans call the deal a “show vote” that doesn’t do enough to address the national debt — the issue that concerns swing independents the most, according to the Third Way poll. (The wealthy not paying enough in taxes comes in No. 7.) Republicans also criticize Democrats for wanting to raise taxes on any Americans during a period of tepid economic growth.

But Democrats see the “fairness” inherent in the Buffett Rule as instrumental to opportunity and economic growth. They go “hand in hand,” said Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, in a conference call with reporters Monday. 

Obama is expected to hit this point repeatedly in the coming week, both in his comments and through forums like local opinion articles in 13 states that are key swing states or feature hot Senate elections this autumn.

“Every Member of Congress is going to go on record,” Obama said of the coming vote in his March 31 weekly address. “And if they vote to keep giving tax breaks to people like me — tax breaks our country can’t afford — then they’re going to have to explain to you where that money comes from.”