The subject came to tax policy during the Democratic presidential debate on ABC in New Hampshire. Charlie Gibson took a very anti-tax position and suggested that as we slip into a recession, we should not "take money out of the economy" by raising taxes on high incomes. (Of course, the government spends all the money it takes, and money spent in our country goes back "into the economy" so that's a good thing).
Senator Clinton immediately jumped to say that higher taxes at the Bill Clinton level would be only "on the wealthy" and not on middle-class Americans.
Charlie Gibson sort of tut-tutted and then showed the value of candor and numbers in tax debates.
He said that two professors working at the college are in the $200,000 bracket, as if to say all this talk about taxing the wealthy isn't really fair because regular people would pay more if we repealed the Bush tax cuts.
And everyone in the audience laughed at him.
$100,000 salaries! Come on!
Senator Clinton said "maybe at NYU!"
And everyone laughed at Charlie Gibson for suggesting the regular people make $200,000 a year.
It was the clearest moment of candor in any tax debate I'd ever seen.
We win when we say that people who make more than $200,000 a year should pay the same tax rate they did under Bill Clinton.
John Edwards fumbled a bit, I thought, as he had a chance to lay out the distinction between the two Americas where "the wealthiest Americans get wealthier and wealthier" and the middle-class are struggling, because he didn't use numbers. He said the vague and muddying phrase "the wealthiest Americans."
Barack Obama did the same by using the phrase "the wealthiest Americans" would pay more so that tax relief can go to the middle class.
Hillary Clinton almost did better, when said she would "set her cap at $250,000" for tax increases, but it wasn't clear.
Our problem is that people think they make more money than they do, because everyone aspires to be wealthy. We need to confront our audience with the actual tax brackets at every opportunity -- particularly when we are trying to raise tax rates on high income -- to show that they are unaffected.
Tonight nailed it. We connect with voters when we talk about actual salaries and thus actual tax brackets. "The wealthiest Americans" or "the top 1%" are phrases that are too vague to connect. Numbers do. Euphemisms do not.