(AP/Reuters/David Manning/Charles Dharapak/J. Scott Applewhite/Photo montage by Salon)

The GOP is the reverse Robin Hood party: Inside their long war against the "lucky ducky" poor

Once the party of across-the-board tax cuts, the GOP now preaches tax hikes on the poor. Here's how they got there


Josh Mound
November 13, 2015 3:56PM (UTC)

For decades, Republican presidential candidates have proposed across-the-board cuts to federal income taxes. Like Reagan in 1980 or Bush in 2000, this election cycle candidates including Donald Trump and Marco Rubio have promised every American a tax cut, deficits be damned. Just as long as these plans have been offered, however, the distribution of Republicans’ proposed tax cuts – a fortune for the rich, a pittance for the poor and middle class – have made their true priorities clear. Conservatives have long accepted tiny cuts for low- and middle-income taxpayers as the political price that has to be paid to give a populist veneer to the upper-income cuts they desire.

In recent years, however, many conservatives have embraced a new conviction, that taxes are too low on some Americans – the poor. As a result, some Republican presidential candidates are abandoning the idea of the across-the-board tax cut and proposing what might’ve once seemed unthinkable for the ostensibly “anti-tax” GOP – tax cuts for the rich combined with new or higher taxes on low-income Americans.

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Republicans telegraphed this shift four years ago with a gaffe that wasn’t. In perhaps the most famous recording of the 2012 presidential campaign, GOP nominee Mitt Romney explained to a group of wealthy donors, “Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect.” Romney went on to say that those federal income-tax exempt Americans were “dependent on government,” which meant that the GOP didn’t need “to worry about those people.” Immediately, Romney distanced himself from the comments, arguing that they represented little more than inelegant phrasing. Even many conservatives argued that Romney’s words were “stupid.”

Yet, while it may have been politically “stupid,” Romney’s “47 percent” homily fell well within the mainstream of a budding conservative view of taxation. Despite some predictions to the contrary, the GOP has not abandoned the philosophy behind the “47 percent” comments. While Republicans may have distanced themselves from Romney’s words, many of the 2016 GOP candidates’ tax plans, as well as the policies of Republican governors in states across the country, demonstrate that the influence of the arguments behind Romney’s so-called gaffe have only grown in recent years.

The belief that democracy gives the poor dangerous power to mooch from the rich has deep roots in conservative thought. Throughout the 1960s, Ronald Reagan peppered his speeches with the quip that democracy would cease to exist when “voters discover they can vote themselves largesse out of the public treasury.” Reagan attributed the quote to Scottish critic of democracy Alexander Fraser Tytler, who died in 1813. In the decades that followed, versions of the quote – variously attributed to Tytler, Alexis de Tocqueville and Thomas Jefferson, among others – became a mainstay on the political right. It gained traction because, like public choice theory and the philosophy of Ayn Rand, it expressed conservatives’ deep fear that democracy courted “disaster,” as Rand put it, by enabling the low-income majority to use their voting power to “take,” via taxes, from the rich.

This logic has underpinned conservatives’ longtime animosity toward “welfare” programs like Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). But, as programs like AFDC have been trimmed or eliminated over the past several decades, the traditional targets of conservatives’ ire, such as the infamous “welfare queen,” have dissolved, leaving a vacuum in conservative rhetoric. With fewer and fewer poor Americans receiving benefits that could plausibly be viewed as generous, the notion that Americans exempt from taxes – or at least a certain type of taxes particularly disliked by conservatives – were “takers” just like welfare recipients gained currency on the right.

They key turning point came early in the George W. Bush administration. Shortly after Bush took office, Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, told the New Yorker’s Nicholas Lemann that the United States faced “a major crisis in democracy.” But DeMint’s comments made it clear that it was not actually democracy that was in jeopardy – it was the Republican Party’s tax message. “We assume that voters will restrain the growth of government because it becomes burdensome to them personally,” DeMint said. “But today fewer and fewer people pay taxes, and more and more are dependent on government, so the politician who promises the most from government is likely to win. Every day, the Republican Party is losing constituents…. The Reagan message [of across-the-board tax cuts] won't work anymore, because the number of people dependent on government has risen dramatically.” Within a few years, DeMint’s thinking would become commonplace on the right.

George W. Bush’s tax cuts were heavily tilted toward the rich. However, following DeMint, some conservatives worried that they were actually further expanding a dependent class – the federal income tax-free “lucky duckies.” “Who are these lucky duckies?” the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page asked rhetorically in 2002. “They are the beneficiaries of tax policies that have expanded the personal exemption and standard deduction and targeted certain voter groups by introducing a welter of tax credits for things like child care and education.” The terrifying result of these exemptions, deductions and credits was a growing number of poor and working-class Americans who paid little-to-no federal income taxes. This development, the Journal argued in language that would soon become common on the right, was “undermining the political consensus for cutting taxes at all.” In order to combat the quacking ranks of the “lucky duckies,” the Journal urged Republicans to oppose any further tax cuts for low-income Americans.

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While the Journal’s editorial was widely mocked by liberals, the paper found itself in good company on the right. Fox News’s Tony Snow, who would soon become Bush’s press secretary, fretted that America was “on the verge of a society that cleaves into two classes: Those who pay taxes and those that get tax money from Uncle Sam.” Such an arrangement, Snow argued, “mocks the idea that citizenship demands that each person pull his or her weight.” Only a few days later, the National Review’s A. Tappen Soper wrote, “This country was founded on the notion that taxation requires the consent of its citizens. Consent implies approval of the majority, but if the majority is no longer impacted by the income tax it is less and less likely to be concerned with how those taxes are collected and spent.”

These views found a sympathetic ear in the Bush White House. In December 2002, R. Glenn Hubbard, the chair of Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, warned that low federal income taxes on the poor were “stand[ing] in the way of moving to a simpler, flatter tax system.” Likewise, Treasury staffer J.T. Young called for the end of “liberalism’s simplistic class warfare” in a Washington Times editorial. Instead of continuing to cut taxes on the poor, Young predicted that  “the tax burden will have to begin extending backward down the income ladder.” The poor, in other words, would need to face higher taxes.

This was a far cry from the “compassionate conservatism” promised during Bush’s presidential campaign. Then, Bush had packaged “conservative economic stapes with a populist twist,” as the Associated Press put it. Bush claimed that his tax policies were designed to “take down the tollgate on the road to the middle-class” and boost “social mobility for hard-working American families.” During his first months in office, Bush continued to pitch his tax proposals as a boon to the poor and working class. Inviting a single mother he had met during his presidential campaign to the White House, Bush argued that the tax code was “unfair to people who struggle to get ahead…unfair for the single mom who lives on the outskirts of poverty, who’s working hard to provide for her family.” By not only cutting tax rates but also by doubling the Child Tax Credit, Bush promised in speech after speech that his tax policies would aid those Americans on the “outskirts of poverty.”

Now, the Bush administration was singing a different tune. Putting the White House’s weight behind Hubbard and Young’s words, the February 2003 Economic Report of the President touted the taxation of consumption, rather than income, as the next frontier in tax reform.

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For decades, conservatives had called for replacing part or all of the federal income tax system with some form of a national consumption tax, such as the Value Added Tax (VAT) used by many European countries. Crucial to the idea’s appeal to many on the right was that consumption taxes (such as state and local sales taxes) are regressive, taking a higher percentage of the poor’s income than the rich’s, while the federal income tax has progressive rate, meaning that the rich – at least in theory – pay a higher rate than the poor.

Every Republican presidential administration in the past half century has toyed with the idea of using a VAT or other national consumption tax to cut federal income taxes. During the Nixon administration, the Chamber of Commerce urged the adoption of a national VAT in order to raise revenue that could be used to cut taxes on corporations and upper-income individuals. The proposal found support from conservatives within the Nixon White House,  but it was dropped quickly when it was attacked by Democrats, including Nixon’s 1972 opponent George McGovern, who criticized the VAT as a “regressive tax” that was “against the interest of middle- and low-income people.” The idea of scrapping the federal income tax in favor of a national consumption tax reared its head again during the Ford administration, but the proposal wasn’t released until after Ford had lost to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election, and it received little attention.

A national consumption tax received perhaps its most serious airing during the tax reform debates of the mid-1980s, when Ronald Reagan’s Treasury secretary, former Wall Street mogul Donald Regan, made the VAT a central part of his department’s massive tax reform study. Like most studies of the VAT, however, Regan’s found that the VAT would hit the poor hard, estimating that a 10 percent VAT would take less than two percent of income for those making more than $200,000, but between nine and 14 percent (depending on how the VAT was administered) for those making less than $10,000. With an eye to the political backlash such a proposal likely would engender, the Reagan Treasury study rejected the idea because of its “inherent regressivity.” The VAT then had a similarly brief revival during the George H.W. Bush administration.

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In line with the “lucky duckies” rhetoric of the time, the George W. Bush White House decided to revisit the idea again. In January 2005, Bush created an advisory panel on tax reform that many conservatives expected would endorse a national consumption tax. Conservatives’ hopes received a boost when Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan endorsed the idea of a national consumption tax. Like the Reagan Treasury, the Bush panel found that – even with a generous “prebate” designed to offset some of the consumption tax’s new burden on low- and middle-income Americans – the consumption tax would result in a huge hike on the middle class, a small cut for the poor, and a windfall for the rich, a conclusion echoed by several outside studies. Ultimately, the Bush panel stopped short of proposing a VAT. However, unlike the Reagan White House, the Bush panel decided against a national consumption tax not because it was too regressive, but because many of the panel’s members felt it was not conservative enough.

The irony of the GOP’s search for a solution to the “lucky duckies” was that the provisions that exempted low-income Americans from the federal income tax had been put in place primarily by Republicans.

From the early-1960s through the mid-1980s, the percentage of Americans who didn’t pay federal income taxes hovered between the low teens and the mid-20s. In the 20 years preceding the Great Recession, however, the largest jumps in the number of federal income tax-exempt Americans occurred during the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, thanks both to rate cuts and the expansion of work- and family-centered tax exemptions and credits.

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The use of tax exemptions and credits as the United States’ prime anti-poverty policies was championed by conservatives as an alternative to the creation of new safety net programs, which were favored by Democrats and even some liberal Republicans in the 1960s and early-1970s. Pushed by grass-roots activists, such as the National Welfare Rights Organization, officials in both the Lyndon Johnson and Nixon administrations considered creating a national guaranteed minimum income program. But conservatives forcefully opposed cutting checks to every American in order to eliminate poverty, and argued instead that benefits should be available only to adults who worked and children.

The result of conservatives’ insistence on “pro-work” anti-poverty programs was the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), signed into law by Gerald Ford in 1975. The EITC was praised by conservative economists like Milton Friedman and Gary Becker, and in the past 40 years, it’s grown substantially, thanks to repeated expansions by Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Throughout its first several decades of existence, the EITC received such bipartisan love that one political scientist has argued that “one would be hard-pressed to find any government program that received such universal acclaim among political elites.”

But skepticism by some on the right of the EITC and similar tax credits lurked below the surface. When the EITC was first proposed, some of Ford’s advisers lambasted it as a “a new and undesirable welfare type program” and worried that it would wipe out the federal tax burden of some low-income taxpayers.

The rise of “lucky ducky” logic in the 21st century, then, represented the return of a previously suppressed line of criticism among conservatives. This line of criticism returned with full force after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. The Great Recession pushed many Americans who had previously paid federal income taxes into tax-free status, thanks to falling incomes. Meanwhile, temporary tax credits in Obama’s stimulus package exempted more Americans from federal income taxes.

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Indeed, the right’s rhetoric about federal income tax-exempt Americans became almost conspiratorial during the Obama years. In his 2010 book, "The Battle: How the Fight Between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America's Future," American Enterprise Institute president Arthur C. Brooks argued that cutting low-income Americans’ income taxes was part of Obama’s plan to guarantee that those Americans had “no incentive to resist the expansion of statism” and “ensur[e] that an increasing number of people in our society will never develop a pocketbook interest in free enterprise.” “In a nutshell,” Brooks concluded, “the strategy is to make fewer and fewer people pay all the taxes and bear the brunt of paying for a growing government.”

Brooks was far from alone in his revitalization of the “lucky duckies” thesis. The month Brooks’s book was released, two-time Colorado GOP gubernatorial nominee Bob Beauprez was videotaped denouncing the “47 percent” as part of “a political strategy to get slightly over half and have a permanent ruling majority by keeping over half of the population dependent on the largesse of government that somebody else is paying for.”

The number of elected Republicans who had made similar comments in the months that followed was staggering. The list includes Jim DeMint, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Orrin Hatch, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, and Eric Cantor, among others. For example, DeMint, who would soon leave the Senate to head the Heritage Foundation, told the libertarian magazine Reason that he was worried the U.S. was becoming Greece, since “almost half of Americans are getting something from government, and the other half are paying for it.” Likewise, Perry called it an “injustice that nearly half of all Americans don’t even pay any income tax.”

Conservative think tanks wrapped the revived “lucky duckies” argument in a veneer of social scientific objectivity. In February 2012, the Heritage Foundation published its annual “Index of Dependence on Government,” which called the increase in federal income tax-exempt Americans “one of the most worrying trends in the Index.” If the citizens’ representatives are elected by an increasing percentage of voters who pay no income tax, how long will it be before these representatives respond more to demands for yet more entitlements and subsidies from non-payers than to the pleas of taxpayers to exercise greater spending prudence?” it asked rhetorically. The title of another piece by a Heritage staffer made the point clear: “More People Should Pay Taxes.” To help ensure no one felt bad for the “lucky duckies,” a separate Heritage study, which was widely reported by Fox News and other conservative media outlets, purported to show how good the poor in the U.S. have it because nearly all owned appliances like refrigerators.

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Conservative commentators – including Stuart Varney, Bill O’Reilly, Gretchen Carlson, Sean Hannity, Neil Cavuto, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh – further denounced the federal income tax-free poor during the Obama years. “You’ve reached a tipping point,” Varney, a Fox business commentator, said in 2010. “If half of the households in America pay absolutely no federal income tax at all – and that is the case – why doesn’t that half who pays nothing vote for higher taxes for the other half who pays everything?” Keeping with its longstanding insistence that the U.S. was becoming an “entitlement nation,” Fox News even wondered whether the 47 percent exempt from federal income taxes should be allowed to vote. (It wasn’t such a far-fetched idea on the right. In 2003, National Review’s Tom Nugent wrote that the opinions of Americans who didn’t pay federal income taxes shouldn’t be considered in polling about tax issues.)

The world of conservative websites took to mocking federal income tax-exempt Americans as losers. During the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests, Erick Erickson of the conservative Red State website created a “53 Percent” Tumblr page, which portrayed the Occupy protesters as members of the federal income tax-free “47 percent” and mocked them with lines like “I am the 53 percent subsidizing you so you can hang out on Wall Street and complain.”

As the 2012 election approached, the idea that Americans’ whose income fell below the federal income tax threshold were little more than moochers had become conventional wisdom on the right. Romney’s eventual running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, framed it in a simple “makers” versus “takers” dichotomy. “I think it's 49 percent of people don't pay income taxes today,” Ryan said during an October 2011 speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “There are other taxes, but here's the danger I think we have: I think we’re reaching a tipping point, we're coming close to a tipping point in America where we might have a net majority of takers versus makers in society, and that could become very dangerous if it sets in as a permanent condition.” Putting his policy in line with his rhetoric, Ryan’s 2010 “Roadmap for America’s Future” called for a national 8.5 percent VAT.

Following Ryan’s lead, several 2012 GOP presidential put forward tax plans that embodied the idea that the tax burden needed to be shifted downward toward the poor. “I think everyone should have to pay something,” Michele Bachmann argued. In a “perfect world,” Bachmann continued, the poor would face higher taxes, while the corporate tax rate would be cut from 35 percent to nine percent and the capital gains tax, alternative minimum tax, and estate tax would all be eliminated, dramatically cutting taxes for the rich. The Wall Street Journal’s Stephen Moore gushed that Bachmann’s proposals were “reminiscent of Jack Kemp, the late congressman who championed supply-side economics.” Rick Perry proposed a flat tax plan that would have hiked taxes for the poor and cut them for the rich. Likewise, Herman Cain’s much-publicized “9-9-9” plan was really a proposal for a three consumption taxes and would have substantially increased taxes on low- and middle-income Americans and decreased them for the well-off.

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While Romney and Ryan distanced themselves from their “makers” versus “takers” and “47 percent” comments, the 2012 GOP ticket put forward a tax plan that, though less radical than Ryan’s “Roadmap” or Cain’s “9-9-9” plan, nonetheless included massive tax cuts for upper-income Americans and tax hikes for the poor.

Some conservatives, however, viewed Romney’s retreat from his “47 percent” rhetoric as a betrayal. Writing the National Review, Michael Walsh argued that, instead of backing down, Romney should explain why half of Americans paying no federal income tax was “fundamentally undemocratic.” Then, Walsh continued, Romney should put forward a tax plan that “eliminates the built-in bias toward class warfare that Democrats have long counted on and continue to exploit.”

Even conservatives critical of Romney’s “47 percent” comments agreed that something needed to be done to make the poor feel the tax pinch. Reihan Salam suggested that Republicans should push to “create a very visible new tax.” Specifically, Salam urged the creation of a national consumption tax. “[I]magine if every time you bought a cup of coffee, it said on the receipt that you had also just paid a 12.3 percent consumption tax to the federal government,” Salam wrote. “What better way to remind people of all of the money government spends, and all of the money government spends foolishly, than to make them pay for government several times a day?”

Romney’s defeat made taxing the “lucky duckies” at the federal level difficult for the GOP. But in states across the country in the past five years, GOP governors have been busy raising taxes on the poor and cut taxes on the rich. In Kansas, for example, Gov. Sam Brownback enacted a variety of cuts in progressive taxes while hiking regressive taxes in a massive shift of income from poor to rich Kansans. Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Ohio’s John Kasich, and New Jersey’s Chris Christie, among many others, have followed the same game plan. In an echo of “47 percent” logic, Maine’s Paul LePage even pitched his poor-punishing tax proposals as “shared sacrifice.” In fact, conservative states – particularly in the South – have long taxed the poor at higher rates than their liberal counterparts, a habit that actually increases poverty in red states. The end result has been to make the already highly regressive state and local tax system even more regressive. In 2015, the richest one percent of Americans paid an average of 5.4 percent of their incomes in state and local taxes, while the poorest 20 percent paid 10.9 percent.

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The actions of GOP governors unintentionally helped put the lie to the right’s “47 percent” arguments. From the start, discussion of the “lucky duckies” included only federal income taxes. State income taxes, local property taxes, and state and local sales taxes, among others, were excluded from this discussion. Often, it even seemed that conservatives purposely obfuscated this distinction. Rather than explaining that the statistic applied only to federal income taxes, many would simply claim, as Fox News’ Steve Doocy did, that “47 percent of Americans [were] not paying taxes.”

Even in reference to federal taxation alone, conservatives’ insistence that half of Americans were moochers who felt no tax pinch was misleading. Most who didn’t pay federal income taxes were exempt for good reason. Nearly three-quarters were either elderly (44 percent) or had their federal income tax burden cancelled out by credits for children or the working poor (30 percent), such as the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit. Most of the “47 percent” also paid federal payroll taxes. Only 14 percent of taxpayers, in fact, paid neither federal income nor payroll taxes in 2009, and the vast majority of them were elderly. Moreover, few Americans are permanent members of the “47 percent.” Many young low-income workers will eventually make enough to owe federal income taxes. Likewise, many of the exempt elderly paid income taxes throughout their working years.

When the entire U.S. tax system is considered, the poorest 20 percent of Americans pay approximately 20 percent of their income in taxes, according to most estimates. Far from a country with a tax system that is highly progressive – hitting the rich much harder than the poor, as a percentage of income – taxes in the U.S. are either barely progressive or completely flat. Taking into account the fact that each additional dollar is much more valuable to a minimum wage worker than to Bill Gates – making progressive rates necessary for taxes to be equally “painful” to the poor and the rich – it’s difficult to understand conservatives’ claims that the poor are undertaxed and the rich are overtaxed.

Nonetheless, this view has persisted in the years since the 2012 presidential campaign. Conservatives like Arthur Laffer – the famed “supply side” guru – have teamed up with large retailers and state GOP lawmakers to push a national online sales taxation, and the proposal has been received sympathetically by some national Republicans, including Paul Ryan. At the same time, the EITC and other tax policies benefitting the poor have come under attack by conservatives and libertarians like the Cato Institute and Rand Paul. (Giving an international dimension to these critiques, David Cameron’s Conservative government in the U.K. has attempted to cut that country’s version of the EITC at the urging of the political right.)

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It’s impossible to understand the right’s singling out of tax benefits for the poor, rather than much more expensive ones that benefit the rich, as anything other than a continued attack on the “47 percent.” As the Tax Policy Center’s Howard Gleckman pointed out, a household making between $20,000 and $30,000 in 2011 gained $866 thanks to the EITC, whereas a household making more than $1 million gained more than $7,000 thanks to the deductions for mortgage interest and property taxes alone. “The EITC may have moved a household from federal income taxpayer to non-taxpayer,” Gleckman wrote. “But who was really better off?”

This election cycle, GOP presidential contenders Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, and Rand Paul, among others, have taken aim at the “lucky duckies.” Cruz’s plan, for example, calls for turning today’s graduated-rate federal income tax into a flat-rate 10 percent income tax and replacing the payroll tax and corporate income tax with a 16 percent Value Added Tax. Because Cruz’s VAT would be administered by what’s known as the “tax-inclusive subtraction-method,” Cruz’s plan can be thought of as similar to either a 10 percent income tax and a 19 percent sales tax or a 10 percent income tax and a 16 percent payroll tax (for a combined 26 percent federal rate on wage income).

In both cases, it’s difficult to see how either the poor or the middle class would fare better under Cruz’s plan than the current federal tax system, even with the retention of the Earned Income Tax Credit. In fact, it’s likely that most Americans would be much worse off. In addition to the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush administrations’ estimates, studies of the VAT – both as it actually exists in European countries and in estimates of a potential U.S. implementation – consistently find that it’s highly regressive. Even the most favorable analysis of Cruz’s plan, put forward by the business-funded Tax Foundation, found that it would increase the after-tax incomes of the richest one percent by 30 percent, compared to less than two percent for the middle-class.

Cruz’s fellow Republicans’ plans look little better. Like Cruz’s, Paul’s plan – which Glenn Beck said was “so good” it was “erotic” – combines a flat-rate income tax with a VAT, both at 14.5 percent, and eliminates both the corporate income tax and the payroll tax. It, too, would be a huge giveaway to the rich, according to the Tax Foundation’s estimate. Huckabee has proposed a whopping 30 percent consumption tax, which the former Arkansas governor has tried to portray as a blessing for the poor. This assertion didn’t even fly with George H.W. Bush’s former senior economist, William Gale, who brusquely dismissed claims like Huckabee’s that a consumption tax would benefit the poor. “The notion that a tax on consumption will help the poor and hurt the rich is contrary to just about everything that is known about rich/poor spending and income habits,” Gale explained.

Insofar as conservatives have critiqued these plans, they’ve lamented that the VAT might not sting the poor enough. These critics would like to keep the provisions that benefit the rich – such as the flat-rate income tax – but scrap the VAT in favor of keeping the current (regressive) payroll tax, which would hardly be a favor to the poor.

Some candidates have heeded this critique while keeping the impulse to raise taxes on the poor. Bobby Jindal, for example, doesn’t include a VAT in his plan, but does raise income taxes on the poor specifically to eliminate all of the “lucky duckies.” “We simply must require that every American has some skin in this game,” Jindal argued, using an idiom popular on the right. “If we have generations of Americans who never pay any taxes, it will be very easy for them to turn a blind eye to absurd government spending and to continue to allow our government to bankrupt our nation.”

The remaining GOP candidates follow the Reagan model of nominally across-the-board tax cuts that provide their biggest benefits to the rich. While some conservatives have greeted these plans enthusiastically, many have brought these plans in for criticism for expanding the “47 percent.” Jeb Bush’s plan would exempt an additional 15 million from federal income taxes, while Donald Trump’s plan would eliminate income taxes for a whopping 31 million who currently pay. Their plans have been panned by conservatives at Investor’s Business Daily, National Review, Breitbart and the Cato Institute, among others, for increasing the “share of the population that perceives government as a no-cost dispenser of goodies,” as Cato’s Daniel Mitchell put it.

Yet, even here, some of the GOP candidates have made clear the influence of “47 percent” thinking. Marco Rubio’s tax plan has been hailed by so-called Reformocons as demonstrating the GOP’s concern for low- and middle-income Americans by expanding the Child Tax Credit. Not surprisingly, others on the right – such as the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page – slammed Rubio’s expanded CTC as little more than a giveaway to the poor. In fact, however, Rubio’s campaign has gone out of its way to emphasize that, unlike George W. Bush’s expansion of the CTC, Rubio’s would not be refundable – making it almost worthless to many poor families. More to the right’s liking, Rubio’s plan calls for the elimination of taxes on capital gains and dividends, which would provide a bonanza for the rich.

Ultimately, even if the poor don’t get hit on the taxing side, it seems almost certain that they’ll feel the pinch on the spending side under the 2016 GOP candidates’ tax plans. Every Republican’s plan would generate huge deficits. Keeping with a “Starve the Beast” philosophy first popularized by Milton Friedman in the 1960s, Republicans hope to close these yawning budget deficits with cuts to programs directed at low-income Americans.  Indeed, some conservatives want to postpone the VAT temporarily only because they believe doing so will make privatizing Social Security and Medicare easier.

One way or another, it seems, the “lucky duckies” are in the right’s sights. The hunt is on.


Josh Mound

Josh Mound is a doctoral candidate in history and sociology at the University of Michigan.

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