In an election season where the Republicans can't seem to buy a break, the party's highest-profile campaigners have gone back to a bedrock GOP issue: taxes.
In an address to Republican donors in Topeka, Kan., last week, Vice President Cheney cited taxes first – before Iraq, before the war on terror – calling them "one of the most important issues on November 7th."
After a month of speeches focused on terrorism, President Bush has also moved taxes to the fore, speaking ominously of how if "they," the Democrats, "were to get in charge of the House of Representatives, they would raise your taxes and figure out new ways to spend your money," as he did at a campaign event in Chicago last week.
While the president tends to keep his remarks general, Mr. Cheney and Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman get personal. They target in particular Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York, who would become chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee if the Democrats win control of the House. They assert as fact that Mr. Rangel favors "across-the-board tax increases," which Rangel and the Democrats vigorously deny. But the debate has been framed, and it is one that has resonated for decades in the back and forth of partisan politics.
"It plays to the basic party stereotypes, and of course most people, if you give them an unalloyed choice of paying more taxes or less taxes, they'll pick less taxes every time," says Larry Sabato, political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
The problem for Republicans is that taxes don't rank high on surveys of voter concerns, in an election dominated by talk of Iraq, scandals, and uneasiness about the economy in general.
The latest Gallup poll shows likely voters saying that congressional Democrats would do a better job of handling every issue – from healthcare to Iraq to moral standards in the country – than congressional Republicans. Democrats also beat Republicans on handling terrorism, for the first time in the five years Gallup has asked that question.
"I'm not sure that any polls are going to show the Republicans beating the Democrats on anything in this environment," says Republican pollster Whit Ayres.
But he argues that focusing on taxes – and on the prospect of a Chairman Rangel – is still good politics, even though most voters don't pay much attention to the details of the House, such as who runs the committees.
"That doesn't mean that it's not a very effective issue to use with activist voters, and to persuade Republicans that they'd better turn out to vote or else," says Mr. Ayres.
Says Mr. Sabato: "It's red meat for the base, but I think it does extend to a lot of independents.... You look at the issues here, and what do they [the Republicans] have? This is a very tough year for Republicans, so they have to go to golden oldies."
At issue is not a proposal for major new tax cuts, but what will happen when temporary tax relief provisions are about to expire. A reduction in the marriage tax is set to expire Jan. 1, 2011, as is a boost in the child tax credit. The estate tax, which affects the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, now applies only to inheritances exceeding $2 million, but that higher ceiling expires in 2008.
Rangel presents Republicans with the perfect foil. He is an unabashed liberal who has represented a poor district in Harlem since 1970, and he does not shy away from a good fight. In recent media interviews, he has stated that as chair of Ways and Means, he would work across the aisle and end the intense partisanship of the Bush years. But he has also held open the idea of not renewing any of Bush's temporary tax cuts, and thus has prompted an untold number of GOP press releases and attacks.
In an interview with Bloomberg news service Sept. 20, he said he "cannot think of one" of Bush's first-term tax cuts that should be renewed. According to a Rangel aide, the comment needs to be taken in context: The tax cuts don't expire for several years, and it's too soon to say for sure what should happen to them.
Meanwhile, Rangel noted in the interview, a priority for the new Congress should be reforming the alternative minimum tax, a system designed originally to make sure wealthy people cannot avoid paying taxes but which has increasingly affected middle-class taxpayers. That will be an expensive reform, and Rangel wants to reinstate the "pay-as-you-go" system that requires new spending to be covered by revenue increases.
Howard Dean, the Democratic national chair, said on CNN Sunday that Republican warnings that the Democrats will raise taxes are "nonsense."
But RNC chair Mr. Mehlman, when asked on CNN about Mr. Dean's comment, said, "That's what he says. But the guy that writes the tax laws, a guy named Charlie Rangel, the week they got out of town, said across-the-board tax increases."
Given that taxes are not a top concern for voters in this election, Republicans will have to work hard to put the issue on their radar screen, says Sabato.
"That's where their money comes in, that's where their ads come in," he says. "They know the news media aren't going to cover that extensively, so they're going to pay for it."