How Donald Trump Blew It
As 2016 begins, Republicans confront two challenges that are as familiar as they are profound. First, they remain an essentially all-white party in an increasingly multiracial nation. Second, the party's economic platform -- cut taxes for the wealthiest and everything will somehow work out -- long ago lost its purchase on public opinion.
After a year or so of vigorous presidential campaigning, the party has made no progress whatsoever bringing its economic fantasy into alignment with the real world. As Ezra Klein wrote in October after a typically daft round of responses at a Republican debate, "Republicans have boxed themselves into some truly bizarre policies -- including a set of tax cuts that give so much money to the rich, and blow such huge holes in the deficit, that simply asking about them in any serious way seems like a vicious attack."
Meantime, on racial inclusion, Republicans have lost ground. A primary campaign featuring two talented Cuban-American senators and a former governor who married a Mexican and speaks Spanish at home has been dominated by open appeals to white racial resentment and xenophobia.
Republicans have brought these problems on themselves, of course. But with a slight adjustment, things might have turned out differently.
Donald Trump was uniquely positioned to run a conservative populist campaign to help move the party beyond its obsessive focus on tax cuts for millionaires. Trump has actually defied the party on entitlement spending on older Americans. Instead of calling for cuts, he vowed to safeguard Medicare and Social Security, mimicking the policy mix -- generous benefits for the old, closed borders and intolerance for the new -- that animates European populist parties.
It wouldn't have taken much of a push for Trump to upset the Republican consensus on taxes, as well. In a May New York Times/CBS News poll, 47 percent of Republicans agreed that "the gap between rich and poor in this country is a problem that needs to be addressed now." Even with the hated Barack Obama in the White House, one third of Republicans said government should "do more" to reduce the gap.
In a Gallup poll that same month, despite language almost perfectly designed to elicit a negative response from conservatives, 29 percent of Republicans agreed that government should "redistribute wealth" through "heavy taxes" on the rich. In a party riven by factions, one third of the vote isn't beanbag. And Trump didn't need to go full Bernie Sanders on redistribution: In a competition among Republican candidates to produce insane plans, a merely non-crazy plan would've sufficed.
Instead, Trump balked. He produced a plan that, according to the Tax Foundation, would deliver maximum benefits to the top 1 percent of income earners while adding more than $10 trillion in debt over a decade.
Too bad. Trump, who has no need to raise campaign cash, could've proposed tax breaks for his working class supporters financed not by deficits but by closing the tax loopholes exploited by his competitors' donors. Would such a course have driven a wedge into the party? Yes. But the wedge exists already. And, realistically, how long do Republicans expect to compete in an era of stark inequality with plans to transfer wealth in perpetuity to the already wealthy?
Instead of mitigating the Republican challenge on fiscal policy, Trump chose to exacerbate the Republican problem on race. He has driven Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio to adopt ever harsher rhetoric, and to clarify immigration stands that each would prefer to leave ambiguous.
It's hard to tell what the net effect of this will be on the 2016 race. But the Republican nominee will in all likelihood go into battle next fall with an absurd fiscal plan and the stench of Trump's nativist appeals still smoldering across the land. For a party in desperate need of new policies and new voters, Trump has been a toxic influence.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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