Boehner’s “Plan B” Doesn’t Help the GOP

President Obama and congressional Democrats are still winning the messaging battle in the debate over the impending “fiscal cliff.”

Republican House Speaker John Boehner tried to change that with a fallback position extending tax cuts for everyone except those making more than a million dollars a year and letting the scheduled spending cuts go through. As I write this, the vote on Boehner’s “Plan B” has not been taken, but it doesn’t really matter. Either way, Republicans will end up as losers in the court of public opinion.

That’s true even though raising taxes on millionaires is supported by 62 percent of voters nationwide. Boehner’s plan fails to accomplish the speaker’s goal of showing that Republicans are willing to raise taxes on the rich, however.

Why? Because 59 percent of voters also want to see taxes raised on those who earn more than $250,000 a year. In other words, the president can continue his rhetoric unchanged, and people still will side with Obama over Boehner.

Most significantly, Boehner’s plan doesn’t gain Republicans any support from unaffiliated voters. Sixty-three percent of these voters like the idea of raising taxes for those who earn more than a million dollars a year. But the exact same number (63 percent) want to raise taxes on those who earn between $250,000 and a million dollars a year, too.

So by agreeing to raise taxes on anyone, Boehner has antagonized his base. By refusing to raise taxes on enough upper-income Americans, Boehner has antagonized those in the middle. Most Americans consider $50,000 a middle-class income, and the speaker is seen as trying to protect those who make five times that amount.

Republicans are losing the debate because the fiscal cliff talks are about fairness rather than about taxes and deficit reduction. Most voters (56 percent) believe the U.S. economy is unfair to the middle class. That’s the issue Obama is talking about and Republicans are ignoring.

With Republicans avoiding the topic, the president defined the terms by saying those who earn more than $250,000 a year should pay more in taxes. It’s true that $250,000 a year doesn’t make someone rich, but the overwhelming majority of Americans defines such affluent citizens as “upper-income.”

Republicans have a choice to make. They can continue opposing all tax hikes and attempt to make the case that it’s the fair thing to do. If they take that approach, voters in the middle will tune out all other GOP talking points about the need for spending cuts and entitlement reform. Or they can let taxes go up on the president’s terms and earn a chance to make the case for spending cuts and entitlement reform from a stronger position.

Both approaches are risky. That’s what happens when you have a bad hand to play. But Boehner’s plan is worse than either option because it further erodes support from the party’s base without gaining any ground in the middle.

The only good news in all of this for the House Republicans is that the messaging over the fiscal cliff will not determine how they fare on Election Day in 2014. At that point, the president’s popularity and his party’s prospects will be judged by the state of the economy.

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