As a famous man once said, “If you don’t have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from. You make a big election about small things.” Doesn’t get any smaller than this, but at least they’re getting closer to admitting the true purposes of the Buffett Rule. One, of course, is to have a bludgeon handy against mega-millionaire Mitt Romney and the other is to start shaping public perceptions ahead of the coming death struggle over the Bush tax cuts. Biden tied both of those up in a tidy package today by introducing — wait for it — the “Romney Rule,” shorthand for Romney’s nefarious plan to encourage growth by keeping the tax burden on job creators relatively low. It’ll work like a charm on the left, but as liberal Michael Tomasky notes, it ain’t the left they need to worry about in November:

More problematically, I wonder if it’s good politics. As I said, the base loves it. But beyond that, I suspect its appeal is limited. This may well be for bad reasons—that is, Americans have had it so pounded into them over the last 30 years that anything like this constitutes “class warfare” that they may just reflexively jump to that conclusion. That’s a shame, and it’s very much worth trying to alter that viewpoint in the long term. In the short term, though, Obama needs to get himself reelected, which probably means that he needs to win independent voters by something like the eight points he won them by last time—or at least by five or six. And “higher taxes for the rich” isn’t going to motivate many swing voters.

I point again to the new poll (pdf) from Third Way of 1,000 independent voters from 12 swing states. I certainly don’t agree with Third Way about everything, but here I think their general pessimism about the old-time liberal religion is warranted. They asked a few questions in this poll that I haven’t seen asked before, and it’s worth noting them.

If you open the above pdf, go look especially at questions 29, 30, 36, and 37. To me, 36B is the most telling. Would you be more likely to vote, the survey asked, for a candidate who said we should help the middle class by stressing growth and opportunity, or by making sure the rich paid their fair share of taxes. The former won by 76 to 20 percent. Other answers indicate that respondents don’t mind the rich paying higher taxes, and even generally back the idea. It’s just not very interesting to them. They’re far more interested in growth than fairness.

Take five minutes to scroll through that Third Way poll that he links. Lot of awkward stares being exchanged in Chicago over this data set, I’ll bet:

Even on the question of how best to reduce income inequality, “swing independents” split evenly between higher and lower taxes on the rich. What’s more, there’s also an almost even split between support for higher taxes and a flat tax:

Exit question: How long will they stick with the Buffett Rule after it goes down in flames in the Senate tomorrow? I can’t imagine them dropping it altogether if only because it’s a way to keep needling Romney about his wealth, but if this is the cornerstone of their economic rhetoric come fall, they’re in deep trouble.