Obama's Buffett Rule campaign hits dead end

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At times it seems President Obama believes the Buffett Rule -- his proposal that Americans making more than $1 million a year pay at least 30 percent in federal income taxes -- is the only solution needed to solve the nation's staggering fiscal crisis.  But with a Senate vote coming Monday in which the measure faces united Republican opposition -- plus no future in the House -- this week is likely to mark the end of the Buffett Rule as a major part of the Obama agenda.  That's not just because of the political opposition; just as important, the Buffett Rule is running into a dead end because a significant part of the political class in Washington has finally admitted the idea is little more than a gimmick that would do nothing to fix the country's problems.

Of course, conservatives and Republicans have thought that all along.  But in recent days, the trouble for Obama has been far broader, as commentators and politicians -- faced with nonpartisan estimates that enacting the Buffett Rule would raise about $4.7 billion in revenue per year, less than a drop in the bucket of a $1 trillion-plus annual deficit -- admitted that there's just not much there.

Washington Post liberal columnist Dana Milbank opened the floodgates mid-week when he published a piece that began, "President Obama admits it: His proposed 'Buffett Rule' tax on millionaires is a gimmick."  Milbank didn't give the president the full benefit of context -- Obama was trying to make the case that the Buffett Rule was worthwhile, even if it would have little effect on the deficit -- but Milbank's column started a wave of anti-Buffett talking points.

"It's total gimmickry," added another prominent voice in journalism, Politico executive editor Jim Vandehei.  Speaking on MSNBC, Vandehei noted that the Buffett Rule is "one percent of what you need to take care of the deficit. There’s a big danger for President Obama in that they become so insanely political in an insanely political culture...He's not offered tax reform when he could have offered tax reform.  Did not offer budgets when he could have offered budgets."

Some Democratic politicians agreed.  "I do question a little bit the priority of doing this right now," said former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, now running for a Senate seat.  Kaine likened enacting the Buffett Rule to "tripping over dollar bills to pick up pennies."  Then Chris Coons, the Democratic senator from Delaware, made clear that, while he will vote for the Buffett Rule, he favors making some sort of exception for small business owners -- "some carve-out where if they're investing, if they’re creating jobs, they don’t face a doubling of their tax rates."

Meanwhile, White House press secretary Jay Carney was facing skepticism in the press room about the president's claims.  "The president said in September that the Buffett Rule or millionaires taxed would help stabilize the debt and deficits," one reporter asked last Wednesday.  "In a conference call, the White House said the other day that it was not intended to go toward paying down the debt and deficits; that's handled in the budget.  Today the President said, it's not all we have to do to close the deficit but it will help us close the deficit.  So just to be clear, the White House policy on this is what?"

Carney defended the Buffett proposal as "a basic matter of fairness and economic good sense."

The next day, a note of snarkiness crept into the briefing, when a reporter, noting that the president had scheduled talks with several local news stations around the country, asked, "Jay, what’s left for President Obama to say about the Buffett Rule in his four interviews this afternoon?"  Carney didn't have much of an answer.

Finally, the president himself had to acknowledge the growing skepticism, even as he insisted that the Buffett Rule is needed.  "There are [people] who are saying, well this is just a gimmick," Obama said Wednesday in the passage quoted by Milbank.  "Just taxing millionaires and billionaires, just imposing the Buffett Rule won't do enough to close the deficit.  Well, I agree.  That's not all we have to do to close the deficit.  But the notion that it doesn't solve the entire problem doesn't mean that we shouldn't do it at all."

By the end of the week, the Buffett Rule initiative had been overtaken by the flap over Hilary Rosen and her remarks about Ann Romney.  But even without the new distraction, the Buffett Rule was in serious trouble.  It wasn't going to pass Congress, no matter what happens in the Senate, but by a combination of the president overplaying his hand and the Washington commentariat gradually discovering the essential emptiness of the Buffett idea, what once seemed like a winner for the Obama campaign became an idea that few were taking seriously any more.

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