Mitt Romney Has a Big Tax Problem

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Who would believe that this man would cut taxes for rich people? Photo: Matthew Stockman

Mitt Romney has been insisting for a while that he will not cut taxes for the rich, which everybody took to mean that he would lock into place the enormous, expiring Bush-era tax cuts for the rich, but cut taxes no deeper than that. He has said so over and over again. Here he is saying, "If I'm going to use precious dollars to reduce taxes, I want to focus on where the people are hurting the most, and that's the middle class. I'm not worried about rich people.” And here’s Romney insisting, “I’m proposing no tax cuts for the rich.”

Today the Tax Policy Center analyzes his plan, and it turns out that Romney would, in fact, cut taxes for the rich, even below current levels. The highest-earning one percent would get an additional tax cut averaging $82,000 a year. Romney’s plan would also raise taxes on the lowest quintile by an average of $157 a year.

That the leading Republican wants to cut taxes for the rich is not exactly man-bites-dog. But it is a huge political liability for him. Raising taxes on low-income earners is unpopular, cutting taxes for the rich is unpopular, and doing it when you’re a wealthy scion who looks like a wealthy scion is extremely unpopular. That’s why Romney has been furiously insisting he won’t cut taxes for the rich.

Ross Douthat, taking Romney’s claims at face value (like many of us did), confidently asserted yesterday that he has avoided exposing himself to the charge of cutting taxes for the rich. Romney, he wrote, is “campaigning instead on a revenue-neutral tax reform and a modest tax cut for middle class investors, neither of which leaves him particularly vulnerable to the charge of “giving massive tax breaks to the rich.”

Turns out he’s not. And his plan isn’t revenue-neutral, either. It would add $180 billion to the deficit in 2015.

What makes this report tougher for Romney is the timing. He’s already under pressure from conservatives upset with his pledge not to cut taxes for the rich. If he had already wrapped up the nomination, Romney could just say, "oops, we screwed up the plan," and release a new one that holds taxes for the rich at their Bush-era levels and doesn’t raise them on the working class. But that would be a tricky move in the midst of a primary. Anyway, the changes he'd have to make would be very large — $180 billion a year is big money, requiring a major revamp of his plan.