In her Friday story "Some Democrats Count on 'Millionaires' Strategy on Tax Cuts," reporter Jennifer Steinhauer lent some support to the trial balloon launched by partisan Democratic Sen. Charlie Schumer - a "targeted buzz phrase" he's urging fellow Dems to employ when proposing to extend the Bush-era tax cuts on income up to $1 million, rather than the $250,000 limit Obama is pushing.
The phrase? "Tax cuts for millionaires," which Schumer predicts will be a fatal retort to use against Republicans who oppose his plan, the same way the Republicans phrase "death tax" helped the cause of killing the estate tax.
But while the Times hated when Republicans used the term "death tax," Steinhauer showed no hostility toward Schumer's scheme:
The chances of Congress allowing income tax rates to go up only for millionaires: slim. The chances of Democrats using "tax cuts for millionaires" as a political bludgeon against Republican lawmakers: game on.
For several months, Democrats have railed against Republicans intent on extending all the Bush-era income tax cuts, accusing them of doling out "tax cuts for the rich." They said it on the floor of the House and the Senate, and they had their people repeat and jam the idea into every news release and Twitter message they could.
But now, faced with the likelihood that their generalized populist argument will not be enough to hold the line, some Senate Democrats are offering a new approach, and with it a new and more targeted buzz phrase.
In search of a compromise with Republicans, they are offering to extend the tax cuts for income up to $1 million, rather than the $250,000 per couple limit originally sought by President Obama. And to those Republicans who are resisting the idea, they are hurling the phrase "tax cuts for millionaires."
For Democrats, short on time and political mojo, the hope is that the phrase can define the debate with the same semiotic impact as "death tax," the coinage used to considerable effect by conservatives in their drive to slash and eliminate the federal estate tax.
But many Democrats are adopting Mr. Schumer's language. In a news release about the expiration of unemployment benefits this week, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, said, "At the same time that they deny assistance for out-of-work Americans, Republicans are pushing for more tax breaks for millionaires."
While Steinhauer revealed some Democratic political cynicism, she also framed the argument in misleading pro-Democratic fashion.
But using votes cast by Republican senators - some of them millionaires themselves - as a blunt instrument of class rage is something Democrats hope will have legs beyond the lame-duck session that ends this month.
The strategy is hardly a slam-dunk, largely because it is late. Republicans have framed any eliminated tax cut as a pro forma increase. As such, failing to extend the current rates for millionaires may well be seen as less a cut for rich people than a tax increase on someone.
Well, yes, since the "Bush tax cuts" have been the actual tax rates for nine years, raising them would certainly be interpreted as a tax increase.
And how many Democratic senators are millionaires as well? Steinhauer didn't say. But a report from the liberal Center for Responsive Politics (cited by the Times in November 2009) rating the 25 wealthiest senators from 2008 shows that the six wealthiest senators were Democrats, a list easily led by Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, Mark Warner of Virginia, and John Kerry of Massachusetts, all with estimated net worth of over $200 million.
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