Election 2012 is supposed to be all about the economy: How to get it moving. How to create more jobs.
But the only economic issue that has generated much excitement so far is taxes. Mitt Romney's gaffe about the 47 percent of non-taxpayers is only the latest example.
Remember the frenzy over Mr. Romney's refusal to release more tax returns, or Warren Buffett's complaint that his secretary had a higher tax rate than he did? Fears about higher taxes have rallied the tea party on the right. Anger that the top 1 percent of earners pay too little tax coalesced Occupy Wall Street on the left.
All of this tax angst doesn't mean that Americans are blasé about the loss of jobs or the agonizingly slow recovery. It's just that behind those fears lies another, often unspoken dread: the growing federal debt and how we are going to pay it down.
That debt is so large that President Obama can't remember its size when David Letterman asks him on national TV. It's growing so fast – more than $4 billion a day – that few voters want to address it head on.
The candidates know this, so they speak in a kind of code. When Romney dismisses the 47 percent of Americans (actually 46 percent) who don't pay federal income tax as people "who believe they are victims," or when he appoints deficit-reduction hawk Paul Ryan as his running mate, he's trying to reassure wealthy voters and donors: "Don't worry. I know the debt isn't your fault. When it comes time to pay up, you won't get stuck with the lion's share of the burden."
Mr. Obama has his own code. When he talks about raising taxes on those who make more than $250,000 a year, or plunks Mr. Buffett's secretary beside the First Lady at the State of the Union address, he's trying to reassure the poor and the middle class: "Don't worry. I know the debt isn't your fault. When it comes time to pay up, you won't get stuck with the lion's share of the burden with higher taxes or big cuts in government services."
These are comfortable political platitudes in the heat of a presidential election. They're also completely disconnected with any known branch of mathematics in the universe.
Deep down, wealthy voters must sense that their taxes are going to rise. Mr. Ryan's let's-slash-government approach may sound reassuring, but the cuts in Medicare and other government services would be so severe that it would feel like a tax increase to the poor and the middle class. And Republicans can do electoral math as well as anybody. They know they can't get reelected by catering to 5 percent of the voters.
Deep down, middle-class voters must sense that their taxes are going to rise and that government services will be cut. Obama can pledge not to turn Medicare into a voucher system, and that the wealthy must pay their fair share. But Medicare is unsustainable in its current form and, even if the wealthy paid a lot more tax, the debt problem is so large that taxes will have to be raised on those who make less than $250,000.
Maybe that helps explain why the tea party remains a small minority and the Occupy movement has had trouble regaining momentum. Few Americans want to talk about debt. And maybe voters realize that America's federal debt is a shared burden.
More tax-class warfare won't help us figure out how we divvy up that burden.