Why the GOP loves to hate the Democrats' Buffett rule

For Republicans, the danger in disavowing the so-called Buffett rule, a tax hike on millionaires, is that Democrats can paint them as the party that protects the rich. But they believe they can prevail with voters by fighting it. Here's why.

Susan Walsh/AP
President Obama speaks about the Buffett Rule on Wednesday in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington.

Republicans say they’ve seen the so-called Buffett rule before. It’s from the same playbook as Al Gore’s “the people versus the powerful” slogan in the 2000 presidential race, or even Adlai Stevenson’s 1952 promise to work for “Joe Smith, not General Motors.”

It’s a fight they’re spoiling for.

“Democrats are drawn like moths to the flame to class warfare arguments. They do it over and over and over again,” says GOP pollster Whit Ayres. “It always gets ‘em in the game, but it never gets ‘em across the finish line."

The rule – named for Berkshire Hathaway Chairman Warren Buffett, who insists that his income-tax rate shouldn’t be lower than his secretary's – would require those with incomes of more than $1 million to pay a minimum 30 percent income tax rate. 

That tax increase on millionaires would raise, at best, some $150 billion over 10 years – an amount that, if every penny went to deficit reduction, would shave a bit more than 1 percent off this year's federal deficit. Republicans see that amount as piddling, and they believe they can succeed in making that case to the public – and withstand the Democrats' attack on them as the party that protects the rich at the expense of the middle class. 

“Most people realize that this whole Buffett rule is merely a gimmick” by Democrats, says Mr. Ayres. “It’s a political gimmick to score political points and will have absolutely no effect on anything voters care about, especially the size of the deficit and the debt run up by this administration.” 

There's some evidence that Republicans can find inroads with key voting blocs if they stay focused on the national debt, particularly. 

The national debt was the most worrisome issue for independent voters who don't have a strong opinion either of President Obama or of likely GOP challenger Mitt Romney, according to a recent poll by Third Way, a centrist Democratic group.  

Such "swing independents," who make up about 15 percent of the electorate, are a nontrivial and highly contested voting bloc. And while 64 percent of them reported being very worried about the national debt, only 31 percent said they were similarly worried about the rich paying enough in taxes.

More broadly, 51 percent of such swing independents favor a candidate who champions an economy that is based on opportunity, while 43 percent prefer one who makes the case for an economy based on fairness, the poll showed. 

All of that said, however, these voters currently favor Mr. Obama over Mr. Romney, 44 to 38 percent, according to the Third Way poll. But Republicans see in such surveys evidence that the long game may favor them.

“We think this plan [by Democrats to tout the Buffet rule] is going to backfire, ... especially when you look at new polling showing that independents actually favor economic opportunity," said Reince Preibus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, during a conference call with reporters Wednesday. 

Congressional Republicans, particularly, continue to criticize Obama over energy and jobs, even as the president works to make the case for the Buffett rule. 

“Sadly, an administration that promised it would focus on jobs is wasting yet another day on a political event that won’t take a single person off the unemployment line,” said Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell in a statement on Wednesday. “We should be focused on jobs and energy legislation that can pass – not tax-hike show-votes designed to fail.”

The Republicans' message in the mist? Once the Buffett proposal is beaten back in the Senate on Monday (it is expected to come up short of the 60 votes needed to defeat a filibuster), Republicans expect they will be perceived as having stuck with their main point: Mr. President, where are the jobs? 

Republicans face an uphill climb, in the short term at least. More than 6 in 10 Americans specifically favor the proposed Buffett rule, according to a March Reuters/Ipsos poll. As its advocate, Democrats stand to gain.

They describe the Buffett rule as a “basic principle of fairness” – and Republicans as protectors of America’s monied interests. They see it as a way to draw even clearer distinctions between themselves and Republicans.

“Just by calling it the ‘Buffett rule' that’s sort of puts the ball more in the Democrats' court,” says Tobe Berkovitz, a communications professor at Boston University who worked on more than 50 Democratic-aligned campaigns. The rule itself, he adds, is a policy puff ball, but the fairness argument will be front and center for both parties this election cycle.

“Fairness will be further defined as we get out of the summer and into the fall,” says Mr. Berkovitz. “Right now, the frame is more successful for the Democrats.”

Republicans on Capitol Hill grasp this.

“I understand the polls. I can read a poll just like Barack Obama can. I understand that people look at it and say, ‘Yeah, how come Warren Buffett pays less than his secretary?’ ” Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida told ABC News in Florida on Wednesday.

Where Republicans believe they can win is on where the argument for “fairness” leads.

“What [Americans] need to understand is the reason why he may pay less than his secretary, in terms of the rate, is that she makes her money on a paycheck and he makes his money on investments,” Senator Rubio said. “We have always wanted Warren Buffett to, instead of putting that money in a coffee can, to take his money and invest it, because that created jobs.”

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