President Trump is formally kicking off his reelection campaign with a couple of pages of bullet points. If it wasn’t clear before, it is now: Trump’s reelection campaign will be a battle over culture, tone, and broad rhetorical strokes—not detailed policy choices.
Democratic challenger Joe Biden has proposed a tax policy platform that runs on for chapters, with careful explanations of the nature of problems followed by detailed solutions. It doesn’t quite mimic former presidential hopeful Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who “had a plan for that” no matter the issue, but it comes close.
You might not like Biden’s tax agenda—he’s proposed a substantial net tax increase over 10 years. But you know where he stands. His platform includes at least 50 specific tax changes—more than two dozen he announced by late February that the Tax Policy Center was able to score, and an additional 20-plus since then.
Trump, who in a classic bit of political ju jitsu blasts Biden for having no policy agenda, has said remarkably little about what he’d actually do in a second term. This week’s press release added little meat to the bones, including when it comes to tax policy.
I once knew a Washington press spokesman who would refuse to answer repeated questions on a topic with this; “I have nothing to add to the nothing I had.”
That’s pretty much what Trump is doing with tax policy. He’s got a few, exceedingly vague, proposals. I’ve never thought I could fit a presidential candidate’s entire tax platform into single blog, but here—in total and in the campaign’s own words—is Trump’s second term tax agenda.
· Cut Taxes to Boost Take-Home Pay and Keep Jobs in America
· ”Made in America” Tax Credits
· Expand Opportunity Zones
· Tax Credits for Companies that Bring Back Jobs from China
· Allow 100% Expensing Deductions for Essential Industries like Pharmaceuticals and Robotics who Bring Back their Manufacturing to the United States
This is the president’s MO. Trump did it in his 2016 campaign and again during the big 2017 tax cut debate. During his campaign, he rolled out several different tax reform plans, each less specific than its predecessor. As Congress began to seriously debate a major tax cut, Trump’s wish-list devolved into a similar list of bullet points. The White House left the heavy lifting to congressional Republicans
Curiously, this week’s wish list excludes several tax issues the president has teased in recent months. No mention of extending the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Acts individual income tax cuts that are due to expire after 2025—something he has promised many times in the past. Nothing about cutting capital gains taxes, an idea he floated as recently as a few weeks ago.
Of course, we have no idea what “cut taxes to boost take-home pay and keep jobs in America means.” Is it an extension of the payroll tax deferral he promised in August? Perhaps. Is it a cryptic reference to those expiring TCJA tax cuts? Maybe. But who knows?
“Just stir ‘em up”
The best book ever written about American politics—fiction or non-fiction—was “All The King’s Men” by the great southern poet Robert Penn Warren. The 1947 novel tells the story of how Willie Stark transformed from an idealistic small town politician to a ruthless, corrupt demagogue who became a governor.
In one memorable scene, just as Stark is beginning his metamorphosis, he gives a speech about taxes. It is a flop, and Willie can’t understand why. “Looks like they’d want to hear about taxes,” he tells Jack Burden, his campaign aide and the book’s narrator.
“You tell ‘em too much, “Jack says. “They don’t give a damn about that. Hell, make ‘em cry or make ‘em laugh…Or make ‘em mad. Just stir ‘em up, it doesn’t matter how or why, and they’ll love you and come back for more…Tell ‘em anything, but for Sweet Jesus sake don’t try to improve their minds.”
That’s what Willie Stark did. It is what Donald Trump did so successfully in 2016, and it appears it is what he’s going to try to do in 2020. The campaign vows that Trump will have more to say about his policy agenda in his Thursday night acceptance speech and in a series of speeches during the campaign. I hope that’s true. But I’m not counting on it. Like Willy Stark, Trump’s political future may rest more on his ability to “just stir ‘em up” than with a carefully reasoned and articulated tax policy agenda.