President Barack Obama is using the week before income taxes are due to make a full-court press for the vote next week in the Senate on the so-called "Buffett Rule" (which would force people making a million bucks a year to pay higher taxes than their secretaries). Today, he mentioned what could turn out to be the biggest weapon in this fight, and made a joke about what it should be called instead. Obama shouldn't be treating it as a joke, though. He should take his own advice and publicly rename the idea the "Reagan Rule" -- and then run a television ad explaining why to the country.
Before we get to that, though, a quick review is necessary. Monday, ThinkProgress uploaded a video to YouTube. The same day, Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi were emailing the link to journalists. When I viewed the ad on Monday, it had less than 500 views. It now has over 72,000. I encourage everyone reading this to view this clip right now (it's only about a minute long) and add to this total.
The video is simple. It shows a longish clip of Ronald Reagan giving a speech in 1985, and then a much shorter one of Barack Obama at the end, seemingly agreeing with Ronnie. Today, President Obama gave a speech in strong support of the Buffett Rule. In it, he explains the Reagan video clip:
Let me just close by saying this. I'm not the first president to call for this idea that everybody has got to do their fair share. Some years ago, one of my predecessors traveled across the country pushing for the same concept. He gave a speech where he talked about a letter he had received from a wealthy executive who paid lower tax rates than his secretary, and wanted to come to Washington and tell Congress why that was wrong. So this president gave another speech where he said it was "crazy" -- that's a quote -- that certain tax loopholes make it possible for multimillionaires to pay nothing, while a bus driver was paying 10 percent of his salary. That wild-eyed, socialist, tax-hiking class warrior was Ronald Reagan.
He thought that, in America, the wealthiest should pay their fair share, and he said so. I know that position might disqualify him from the Republican primaries these days, but what Ronald Reagan was calling for then is the same thing that we’re calling for now: a return to basic fairness and responsibility; everybody doing their part. And if it will help convince folks in Congress to make the right choice, we could call it the Reagan Rule instead of the Buffett Rule.
Obama kind of played it as a joke. This is wrong. He should follow his own advice, and start calling it the Reagan Rule. Democrats in the Senate should immediately rename the bill they're setting up for a vote the "Ronald Reagan Tax Rule." Every Democrat interviewed anywhere in the next solid month should refuse to utter the phrase "Buffett Rule" and instead insist upon referring to it as the "Reagan Rule" -- leaving it up to the interviewer to explain what he's talking about.
Some might discount this as cheap political trickery, or a crass example of "framing" or "branding" gone amok. I could not disagree more. Whoever dug up that clip over at ThinkProgress was brilliant to do so, and Obama's speechwriting team was equally brilliant at coming up with the "Reagan Rule" quip. But now Democrats should follow through on it in a big way, to drive the point home with a sledgehammer.
Rarely in politics is there an idea which covers so much ground at the same time. Republicans would have to tie themselves in knots explaining why Reagan really didn't mean what he is -- quite obviously -- actually saying. This would hit the Republican Party hard, and they would spend valuable time bickering over the implications. The ways this would be effective are almost too lengthy to list, so we'll just briefly touch upon a few of them:
Saint Ronald of Reagan
The modern Republican Party has all but sanctified Ronald Wilson Reagan. This worshipful adoration is on display whenever they hold a debate in Ronnie's presidential library, under the looming wings of the previous Air Force One plane he used to ride around in. Reagan, quite bluntly, never did anything wrong or questionable to today's Republicans. However, mythologizing aside, Reagan actually did many things which would, as Obama pointed out, have disqualified him for national office in today's GOP. The public needs to be reminded of a few of these things, and this clip is the best way to do so that I have yet seen.
Reasonable and understandable
What Reagan is saying is reasonable and understandable to virtually every American voter. It is the core of the "Buffett Rule" -- people making millions of dollars per year should not be able to pay a lower tax rate than firefighters, police, and those serving in the U.S. military. To say nothing of their secretaries. Overwhelming percentages of the American public agree with this concept, every single time they are polled on the question. It is a popular (and a Populist) message: these folks need to pay their fair share. Even Reagan knew it. And there are millions of what used to be called "Reagan Democrats" out there who would agree with Ronnie, and agree with the concept, if they saw this video in an ad.
Ronald Reagan had another favorite saying which needs to be turned back around. Reagan (say it softly) started out his career as a Democrat. To explain his party switch, he used to say "I didn't leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me." This is exactly where millions of voters are now finding themselves who used to be reliable Republican base voters -- not even swing voters. They used to happily vote the straight GOP party ticket, secure in the knowledge that the more extreme wing of their party was held in check by saner heads in the party leadership. This is no longer true -- the GOP leadership is now terrified of the extremists in their party, because the extremists have risen to such power and prominence. Again, voters need to be reminded of this. Ronald Reagan couldn't win a Republican primary today in many "red" states. Reagan's not the reason for this change -- instead, the Republican Party "left him." Democrats need to make exactly this case to Republican rank-and-file voters who are horrified at how extreme their own party has become. A good way to do this is to point out: "Today's Republican Party would kick out Ronald Reagan because he wasn't extreme enough to pass their purity tests."
Puts GOP on defensive
Ronald Reagan, as previously mentioned, never did a single thing wrong as president, according to today's Republicans. Having to explain why their patron saint supported the same idea Barack Obama is now pushing is a tough row for them to now hoe. They can't badmouth Reagan -- this is simply not an option. They can't very easily explain how your lyin' ears are hearing something different than what Reagan "really said" -- because that video clip is so obvious and clear. This entire debate is a great one for Democrats to have with Republicans, because it causes Republicans to play defense on a field they are not used to defending. It is distracting from their own "class warfare" argument (easy answer: "Are you calling Reagan a class warrior?"), and it only shows how reasonable and centrist the popular idea is.
Romney's key vulnerability
Lastly, this goes straight to the heart of Mitt Romney's biggest vulnerability: the fact that he seems to be some mutant offspring of Richie Rich, Scrooge McDuck, and the Monopoly icon Rich Uncle Pennybags. With maybe a bit of C. Montgomery Burns thrown in, for flavor. The more people are talking about Romney's taxes, the better, for Democrats.
For all these reasons (and others), we have to conclude that Obama's idea is not a laughing matter -- it's not just a throwaway joke in one speech. Or it shouldn't be, if Democrats were smarter about the entire concept of "branding" and "framing." Democratic politicians need to start saying things like "We will be holding a vote on the Reagan Rule next week, and I will be very interested to see how many Republicans can bring themselves to vote against the Reagan Rule -- and how they will explain that vote to the public in the coming months. Ronald Reagan supported the idea that people like Mitt Romney and Warren Buffett shouldn't be paying a smaller tax rate than their secretaries. I'm simply astounded that today's Republicans are ignoring what Ronald Reagan had to say about this important fairness issue. But, as I said, we'll see how many Republicans vote against the Reagan Rule next week."
Because of the explosive nature of the video itself, the Democrats in charge of re-electing Obama should prepare the Reagan clip as a television ad, and then run it during one of the national network morning news shows. The ad is so powerful, all it would require would be one airing. After that, it would snowball on its own. It would be featured on news shows for a solid week, gaining millions of viewers in exposure that wouldn't cost a dime, as the anchors explained why Democrats have changed the name of their bill.
Obama is right, and it is no joke -- it is a powerful political statement that is begging to be made, right now. Call it the "Reagan Rule." Do so often.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant