Turning the tax debate upside down

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For years, Democrats were seen as the major party more likely to raise taxes, and as a result, were in a constant state of fear and defensiveness over the issue. If there was a candidate running an attack ad over taxes shortly before an election, it was a pretty safe bet that the candidate was a Republican.

But as the fight over tax policy heats up inside the Beltway, it’s interesting to realize it’s Democrats who are on the offensive. President Obama’s re-election campaign launched this new television ad yesterday.

For those who can’t watch clips online, the ad tells viewers that Mitt Romney supports tax breaks for millionaires, but actually raises taxes on millions of working families, while Obama wants the wealthy to “pay a little more so the middle class pays less.” The tagline: “Two plans; your choice.”

Republicans continue to work from the assumption that voters will always side with them on taxes, opposing any tax increase by any amount on any one at any time for any reason. But Obama seems awfully confident he’s playing the better hand – the ad wouldn’t talk up asking the rich to “pay a little more” unless it was an idea with broad public support.

The tagline was also of interest because it seeks to frame the campaign in a specific way. For months, the conventional wisdom has said the 2012 race would be “a referendum, not a choice.” In other words, the Republican candidate and his agenda is almost irrelevant – the election will come down to Obama supporters vs. Obama opponents.

But that’s exactly why the president’s campaign is pushing the “two plans; your choice” frame.

If the race is a referendum on Obama, and the mainstream is unsatisfied with the direction of the country, the president has a far more daunting challenge. But if voters are inclined to see the election as a choice between two competing visions, Romney is the one in trouble because the Republican agenda is wildly unpopular.

That’s even true on taxes, where Obama is challenging the GOP on its bedrock issue.

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Turning the tax debate upside down

Updated