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Whatever Happened To Tax Cuts?

National Journal has posted word clouds for four major speeches at the Republican convention: Ann Romney’s, Chris Christie’s, Tim Pawlenty’s (okay, that one may not be so “major”) and Paul Ryan’s. Examining the word clouds, which indicate which words are used most frequently—the more frequent the word, the bigger the type—is infinitely more entertaining than listening to the speeches. The words uttered most frequently are “Barack,” “Obama,” “American,” and “America.” The words “Mitt” and “Romney” inhabit a second tier, along with “president,” “government,” “people,” “believe,” “fault,” and “truth.”

You know what words I can’t find? “Tax” or “taxes.”

Maybe they’re in one of those word clouds, but you’d need a magnifying glass to find them. Christie said “tax" or "taxes” four times, which is fewer than the number of times he said “Romney.” (Christie’s taken a lot of flak for giving short shrift to the nominee.) Pawlenty said “tax” or “taxes” three times. The candidate’s wife said it not at all, which was probably wise, given the controversy surrounding whether the Romneys will release their returns. Mike Huckabee said it three times, Condoleezza Rice said it not at all, and Rand Paul—Rand Paul!—said it once. Paul Ryan said it seven times, but I still can’t find it in his word cloud. For comparison’s sake: Ronald Reagan said “tax” or “taxes” no fewer than 20 times in his 1980 speech accepting the GOP nomination.

For decades the Republican party’s favorite party trick has been to promise voters lower taxes. For months Republican congressional leaders have been pissing and moaning about the (supposedly) harmful effects of (supposedly) high marginal taxes on rich “job creators.” So has RomneyRyan too. Now, not so much. Ryan’s convention speech is instructive. He attacks Obama for heedlessly spending taxpayer dollars on the stimulus and Obamacare, but he doesn’t go on to say, “Mitt Romney’s going to cut taxes!” Which is weird, because Romney will cut taxes—on rich people. Instead of “tax cuts,” Ryan speaks euphemistically of “tax fairness,” by which he means (I guess) elimination of as-yet unspecified tax deductions to pay for Romney’s tax cuts. Weirdly, he also refers to his mentor, the late Rep. Jack Kemp (R.-N.Y.), as “the author of the Reagan tax reforms.” Kemp was not the author of the 1986 Reagan tax reform; principal credit belonged to the late Rep. Dan Rosentkowski, D.-Ill., and former Sen. Bob Packwood, R.-Ore. What Kemp authored was the 1981 tax cut, which dropped the top marginal rate from 70 percent to 50 percent. Why is Ryan refashioning one of the GOP’s most beloved advocates of lower taxes into something he never was?

Perhaps what we’re seeing is a very subtle shaking of the Etch-A-Sketch—a movement toward the center by a political team that seems in all other respects to be dedicated solely to shoring up the base. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, a nonprofit, has pretty definitively demonstrated that Romney’s proposed tax cut, if it’s to be “revenue neutral,” cannot be achieved without raising taxes substantially on lower incomes. Romney himself has, as noted, been pilloried for refusing to release multiple tax returns. And earlier this week the Pew Research Center released a national poll showing that 58 percent of respondents believe the rich (defined by the median as those earning $150,000 or more) are under-taxed; only 8 percent say they pay too much. Can it be that the Romney-Ryan ticket is suddenly nervous about saying “Vote for us, we’ll cut taxes”?

If so, we’d have to count this as a watershed moment. For a generation Republicans have been the party of cutting taxes. It’s been a very effective way to win votes, even when the chief (or only) beneficiaries were the wealthy. The aspirational non-wealthy (Joe the Plumber) seemed to like the idea. Now, maybe pledging to cut taxes isn’t an especially effective way to win votes. If so, don’t expect the GOP to change its policies anytime soon. The party still remains committed to cutting taxes on the rich, who remain the GOP’s most important constituency. But maybe—just maybe—it’s starting to think that tax cutting, like income inequality, is best discussed in quiet rooms.

Update, Aug. 31: Romney, in his nomination speech, said "tax" three times. He said he would cut taxes on businesses but didn't mention that he would also cut taxes on (rich) people. According to a New York Times word cloud for the entire convention, "tax" received 89 mentions in speeches, putting it behind "Romney," "work," "business," "jobs," "Obama," "families," "leadership," "better," "success," "economy," and "God." A word cloud comparison between the 2012 and 2008 conventions that appeared in the Times print edition indicated that "tax" was spoken 31 times per 25,000 words spoken, compared to 42 times in 2008.

TNR's Alec MacGillis attended a Tampa reunion yesterday for Empower America--the now-defunct think tank, started by Bill Bennett and Jack Kemp in the early 1990s, that employed a young Paul Ryan as a staffer. MacGillis discovered there that I'm not the only one wondering what's happened to the tax issue. The CNBC supply-sider (and onetime Reagan budget official) Larry Kudlow was apparently incensed about the substitution of the phrase "tax fairness" for "tax cuts" in Ryan's speech, and said the change must have been foisted on Ryan. "Paul Ryan does not believe in tax fairness," Kudlow said. It's a decent measure of how loopy the conservative movement has gotten that Kudlow meant this as a compliment.