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Why a GOP plan calls for tax increases on millions of Americans

The campaign ads practically write themselves: “Democrats want tax hikes on the wealthy, a leading Republican wants tax hikes on everyone else.”


Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida made a bold move today, unveiling a 31-page blueprint of the kind of ideas he wants his party to pursue when in it's in the majority. Much of the document reads like a right-wing fantasy, filled with stale, offensive, and wildly unrealistic elements.

But the senator added an economic idea that’s likely to get some attention in the coming months. From Scott’s plan:

“All Americans should pay some income tax to have skin in the game, even if a small amount. Currently over half of Americans pay no income tax.”

Ah, yes, the “skin in the game” argument. If it seems as if this GOP pitch has been gone for a while, it’s not your imagination.

In 2011, ahead of her ill-fated presidential campaign, Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann complained that millions of Americans don’t make enough money to qualify to pay income taxes. The far-right Minnesotan described this as ruinous for democracy “because there is no tie to the government benefits that people demand. I think everyone should have to pay something.”

Around the same time, then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry, while launching his own presidential bid, called it an “injustice” so many Americans “don’t even pay any income tax.”

On Capitol Hill, congressional Republicans thought along the same lines. In April 2012, then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said it wasn't “fair” to have the wealthy pay income taxes, while low-income Americans do not.

And then, of course, there was Mitt Romney, who spent part of his presidential candidacy insisting that it was “a real problem” that so many Americans didn’t have to pay federal income taxes. It was a “problem” the wealthy Republican intended to fix.

After Romney was recorded criticizing 47 percent of the country as greedy parasites, then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie defended him, saying Romney simply “believes that every American has to have skin in the game” — a phrase several GOP lawmakers embraced at the time.

The message to the electorate became clear: When Democrats want higher taxes on the wealthy, that’s “socialism,” but when Republicans want higher taxes on everyone else, they’re simply helping low-income Americans have “skin in the game.”

This, oddly enough, did not prove persuasive. In 2012, President Barack Obama won a second term with relative ease; Democrats kept their Senate majority; and Democratic House candidates actually received more votes than their Republican counterparts (though the GOP kept its House majority anyway, despite receiving fewer votes).

In the years that followed, Republicans came to realize that it was unwise to demand tax hikes on those at the bottom. In fact, by 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump said he was inclined to send a tax return with “I WIN” printed on it for everyone who didn’t have to pay federal income taxes.

It appeared at the time that the GOP’s flirtation with the “skin in the game” argument was over.

A decade later, Rick Scott not only wants to bring it back, the Floridian actually put it in writing. He didn’t bother trying to repackage or rebrand the failed pitch; the Republican senator simply embraced the same decade-old phrasing.

As a matter of governing, Scott’s idea, at least for now, is irrelevant: There’s simply no way President Joe Biden would sign a bill to raise taxes on millions of working-class Americans. If the GOP took back the majority on Capitol Hill and managed to pass such a plan, it’d face an inevitable veto.

But that doesn’t mean Scott’s idea is politically insignificant.

On the contrary, the campaign ads practically write themselves. It’s easy to imagine commercials in the fall telling voters, “Democrats want tax hikes on the wealthy, a leading Republican wants tax hikes on everyone else.”

Indeed, the larger context is even worse than that: The same GOP that delivered massive tax breaks for the wealthy and big corporations is led in part by a Republican who believes lower income Americans need to start paying more taxes.

Don't be surprised if every GOP senator faces the same question in the coming months: "Do you agree with the NRSC chair's call for higher taxes on millions of Americans?" Their answers should be illuminating.

It’s suddenly become clearer why Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is so against presenting voters with a policy blueprint before the 2022 midterm elections: The more Republicans talk about their ideas, the more likely it is they’ll say something voters will find repulsive.

Postscript: In case this isn’t obvious, let’s reiterate that while it’s true that roughly half of the country doesn’t make enough money to owe income taxes, these same Americans still pay sales taxes, state taxes, local taxes, Social Security taxes, and in many instances, payroll and 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. Indeed, many are retirees who can’t earn an income because they’re no longer in the workforce.