Republican 'Outsiders' Are Mainly Mainstream
The staying power of the three outsider candidates in the Republican presidential race is supposed to signal voters’ yearning for fresh, bold solutions to the nation’s problems.
So what do Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson have to offer that the conventional Republican candidates don’t? The answer may surprise you.
On economic policy at least, the three outsiders are pretty much middle-of-the-road conservatives. With some notable exceptions, their views on taxes, trade, energy, health care, the minimum wage, immigration and regulation aren't markedly different from those of Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie .
Take health care. Trump, Carson and Fiorina say they would repeal Obamacare because they abhor government interference in the health-care market (though Trump has made favorable noises about single-payer systems in other countries). They would replace the law with vague, market-oriented alternatives. Their views closely parallel those of mainstreamers Bush, Rubio and Christie.
The two camps also overlap on energy and climate change. The outsiders would encourage more domestic crude oil production and roll back environmental regulations. They are all climate-change doubters: Carson says it's a distraction, Trump calls it a hoax, and Fiorina wants to examine the science more closely. They all favor the Keystone Pipeline, while Fiorina and Carson would also end subsidies for renewable energy.
Among the mainstreamers, Bush and Christie accept that humans are causing at least some climate change, and that the U.S. has to take a lead role in negotiating cuts in carbon emissions with other countries. Rubio is less willing to accept that people contribute to global warming, yet agrees we all have a responsibility to protect the environment. All three mainstreamers, however, are as adamant as Trump, Carson and Fiorina about not imposing environmental rules that might crimp economic growth, cause job losses or reduce the ability of companies to compete abroad. Like the outsiders, the mainstreamers support the Keystone Pipeline.
On taxes, both groups broadly agree that rates should be lower for most individuals and corporations. All six of them would simplify the tax code by collapsing income-tax brackets, lowering rates and eliminating deductions.
They part company after that, but it's hard to say who's more moderate, conservative or inconsistent among the lot. Carson's 10 percent tithe would certainly be the simplest tax system, but also the most regressive. Trump's tax proposals are, shall we say, evolving: He has angered the anti-tax Club for Growth for advocating tax increases for the rich while also enraging liberals for having once favored a tax of only 15 percent on incomes above $1 million. Lately Trump has said he would maintain the tax code's current progressivity.
Fiorina would end all credits and deductions, then negotiate over the handful of tax breaks she would consider reinstating. The three mainstreamers would keep at least some deductions, for example, on charitable contributions (Bush and Christie) and interest on first-home mortgages (Christie).
One outsider (Trump) and one mainstreamer (Bush) would eliminate carried interest, the loophole that lets hedge fund managers pay lower taxes on performance fees. But they both supported the 2008 bank bailouts. And Christie alone is willing to take on AARP and other liberal interest groups in the entitlements lobby. He’d raise the retirement age to 69 from 67. And he wants to eliminate payroll taxes for those over 62 and under 21.
When it comes to taxes on individuals, Bush and Rubio are more centrist and focused on the impact on income inequality than the other candidates are. Bush would remove 15 million lower-income Americans from the tax rolls. He would pay for it by capping the deductions wealthy households can take. Rubio would put the top tax rate at 35 percent, down slightly from 39.6 percent now, but he'd enhance child tax credits.
Immigration is the area where Trump, Carson and to a lesser extent Fiorina supposedly stand out from the others. But that’s based less on their policy prescriptions and more on their "build that wall" bombast. Trump goes farthest by seeking to deport undocumented immigrants and abolishing birthright citizenship, but even he agrees with Carson and Fiorina that immigrants with no criminal record should be allowed in as guest workers.
Bush would also let undocumented immigrants graduate to legal status but he has backed off in giving them a path to citizenship, which he once endorsed. Rubio also once backed the citizenship route but has abandoned that position in favor of calling for securing the border with Mexico for at least a decade before pursuing any immigration overhaul. Christie says he would track immigrants like FedEx packages and would prefer to crack down on employers who hire undocumented workers over building a wall.
On jobs, all three outsiders are opposed, or lukewarm, to raising the minimum wage. Carson would adopt a two-tiered system with lower wages for workers just starting out and higher wages for all others. Fiorina would end the federal $7.25 minimum rate altogether and let states decide where to set the bar. Bush and Rubio are also opposed to raising the federal minimum wage. Christie, the one exception, has said he would back moderate, phased-in increases.
Trade is the one issue where Trump and Carson stand more or less alone in calling for steep tariffs on imported goods, a position that would violate World Trade Organization rules and invite other countries to retaliate.
The voter coalition backing Trump, Fiorina and Carson might want to keep in mind that the candidates' economic policies -- the ones that have the greatest impact on everyday lives -- aren't outside the mainstream at all. The outsiders may decry the ineptitude of today's leaders, but their governing plans look mighty similar.
Bush, Rubio and Christie are widely viewed as representative of the Republican mainstream. In polls, Bush and Rubio also lead the second tier of candidates after the three outsiders. While Ted Cruz is polling slightly better than Christie, his views are well outside the mainstream.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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