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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The One Tax Increase Conservatives Will Support

The most interesting moment in an otherwise unremarkably cliche-ridden announcement speech by Rick Perry on Saturday was this brief passage:

We’re dismayed at the injustice that nearly half of all Americans don’t even pay any income tax. And you know the liberals out there are saying that we need to pay more.

Any doubt in your mind who “we” are in this quote?
It’s all the more interesting because this tangent was nestled into a speech otherwise devoted to the proposition that low taxes are the keys to the economic kingdom.
Steve Benen explains the apparent conundrum:

This is an increasingly popular argument in right-wing circles — Michele Bachmann, one of Perry’s presidential rivals, has pushed the same line — thought it’s entirely counter-intuitive. The argument isn’t even subtle: far-right Republicans are annoyed that many Americans don’t make enough money to be eligible to pay income taxes, so they believe it’s important to get more of these lower- and middle-income Americans paying more to the government.
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.

What much of this is about is actually the Earned Income Tax Credit, the provision in the tax code once much beloved of Republicans (including the sainted Ronald Reagan), and considered central to the Republican-backed welfare reform legislation of 1996, that enables the working poor to reduce or eliminate their income tax liability. It says a lot about the movement of the right of the GOP of late that when Tom DeLay proposed delaying EITC payments back in 1999 in order to help pay for an upper-income tax cut, he was repudiated by both of the front-runner Republican presidential candidates of that cycle, George W. Bush and John McCain.
Now some conservatives confine themselves to attacking not the EITC itself, but its refundable nature: the ability of families whose EITC exceeds its income tax liability to get a check from the IRS (capped, however, by the amount paid in federal payroll taxes). In the common parlance of the Right (ironically echoed by John McCain during the desperate moments of his 2008 presidential campaign when he ran ads attacking Obama’s proposal to increase EITC payments) this refundable feature is “welfare” (albeit “welfare” inherently linked to a work requirement since earned income is necessary to generate it). Indeed, if and when Congress gets around to “tax reform” discussions, you can be certain that conservatives will go after the refundable EITC as a “loophole” that needs to be eliminated along with corporate subsidies.
But Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann don’t seem to be making this sort of distinction; they are talking–in moral terms, no less–about the “injustice” of poor people not paying income taxes in the first place. It’s a faithful echo of the reverse class warfare rhetoric of Rick Santelli’s rant, which launched the Tea Party Movement back in 2009, aimed at the shiftless poor people who had no business trying to own homes and caused the housing and financial crises instead of staying in their place.
At a time when income inequality in this country is reaching previously unimagined levels, and corporate profits are setting records, it’s worth noting that some conservatives are still angry at the less fortunate for their unreasonable demands–to the point they are even tempted to abandon their sacred pledge to never, ever raise taxes on anybody. It’s a part of the seamy underside of today’s politics that bears watching.

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