Jeb's tax-cut gamble: Can he take down Trump with tax cuts for the rich?

Bush is hoping he can create a tax cut so big that conservatives will finally be forced to sort of like him

Published September 4, 2015 2:28PM (EDT)

  (AP/Richard Shiro/Rogelio V. Solis/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Richard Shiro/Rogelio V. Solis/Photo montage by Salon)

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that Jeb Bush is not a good candidate for president. He cashed in on his family’s network of wealthy donors and hyped his own fundraising prowess as proof of how formidable a presidential contender he’d be, but the reality of Jeb! 2016 is something far different. He has a habit of gaffing and then stumbling while trying to clean up said gaffe. He gave a listless and forgettable performance at the first primary debate, and ever since then he’s lost still more ground to Donald Trump. To crawl back into this thing he whipped together a series of weak and self-defeating attacks on Trump, which the frizz-wigged billionaire front-runner has swatted away to no ill effect.

Jeb is trying desperately to convince voters that Trump is neither a true Republican nor a true conservative. That line of attack has two problems. First, questions about Trump’s ideological bona fides and party ID have been swirling since the debate in early August, but his supporters don’t really seem to care that he’s not a lifetime Republican or an orthodox conservative. Second, Jeb isn’t really the right messenger for that sort of attack, given that conservatives distrust him on issues like immigration and Common Core. But Jeb is plugging away, and he’s trying to tear down Trump and prove his own worthiness as a conservative by focusing on taxes.

Specifically, Jeb is going hard after Trump for suggesting tax increases for the wealthy. He blasted Trump for having “proposed enacting the largest tax increase in American history” – a reference to Trump’s 1999 plan to impose a one-time asset tax on the super-rich to pay off the national debt. At the same time, he’s been talking up his own economic record as a tax-cutting conservative who balanced the budget and supercharged economic growth in Florida (the fact that he did so on the back of a massive and ultimately catastrophic housing bubble is always conveniently omitted). And next week, Jeb is going to unveil his tax plan.

The details of the plan are, obviously, still under wraps, but it’s safe to make a few assumptions about what Jeb will propose. He, like his brother before him, loves cutting taxes for rich people. As governor, Jeb cut taxes by about $13 billion (he’ll claim it was $19 billion, but you only arrive at that number if you include a temporary federal repeal of the estate tax) and the chief beneficiaries of his tax-cuttery were the wealthy and corporations. He’s a true believer of the standard-issue Republican dogma on taxes: slash rates on the wealthy and the “job producers,” and you’ll boost economic growth and lift up everyone’s bottom line. The question is how radical Jeb will get in his proposed cuts.

The Republican presidential field is packed full of candidates with some pretty far-out ideas for tax reform. Marco Rubio and a few other candidates want to eliminate taxes on capital gains, which would be a huge windfall for the very wealthiest Americans. Rand Paul wants to eliminate the tax code and replace it with it with an Art Laffer-inspired 14.5 percent flat tax. Ben Carson’s plan is for a 10 percent flat tax, which he based on tithing (“I think God is a pretty fair guy,” Carson offered as his economic analysis). To compete in this field of tax cut eccentrics, Jeb might have to propose a new, radically different, and thoroughly irresponsible mechanism for redistributing wealth upwards. Speaking in New Hampshire, Jeb said he wants the corporate tax rate and income tax rates “as low as you possibly can, eliminating as many of the deductions as you can.”

As Jonathan Bernstein pointed out earlier this year, Jeb is basically running his brother’s playbook when it comes to taxes and presidential politics: propose obscenely large tax cuts for the wealthy as a way to reassure Republican primary voters that, while you may be a bit wobbly on certain peripheral issues, you’re rock-solid on core economic policies.

Trump, however, is putting this strategy to the test. He’s not exactly “populist” in his call for raising some taxes on the rich, but he’s still challenging a core tenet of the Republican policy platform and, for the moment, he doesn’t seem to be suffering for it. As Michael Brendan Dougherty writes, Trump could be exposing a major fault line between the Republican establishment and the party’s base. “If Trump's poll numbers ride high into Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, he may prove that perhaps one-third or more of the party's primary voters are no friends of conservative economic views.” That could be lethal for Jeb, whose hard-charging trickle-down mania is, right now, one of the best thing he has going for him.

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By Simon Maloy

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