Presidential.

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Trump Spares GOP a Reckoning on Tax Policy

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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In a kinder, gentler, alternate universe, Ohio Governor John Kasich is the Republican nominee for president. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush is out stumping for Kasich and plotting the education and immigration policies that he’ll pursue in the vice president’s office. (Substitute Senator Marco Rubio in the veep slot if you prefer; I went with the Floridian who demonstrated superior character.)

With the electoral votes of Ohio and Florida in the bag, and two decent, smart, sunny-side-up conservatives on the trail, the GOP ticket is cruising comfortably toward the White House.

Meanwhile, if anyone in the political world cares -- and in our alternate reality, they don’t -- Donald Trump is preoccupied with a new reality-television show in which he gives away cash prizes to poor young women who excel in science. (The show is part of a settlement of a class-action suit against Trump.)

In reality, of course, millions of Republican primary voters experienced a kind of nausea at the prospect of nominating decent, knowledgeable candidates who were both professionally political and attitudinally optimistic. These voters wanted dark lies to confirm dark fears inspired by previous dark lies. The party will have to reckon with how it got to such a point. 

Meanwhile, the Republican Party is a sick institution that dramatized its crisis by choosing a sick leader even when it had better, healthier alternatives. (The early diagnosis of the patient by political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein couldn’t have been more prescient if they had studied the entrails of Trump’s future tweets.)

We don’t know how devastating this self-destructive turn will be; November will provide only a partial accounting. But what if Republicans had broken the fever and opted for a different path in 2016?

A Kasich-Bush ticket would’ve recast the party in its best light. That, in turn, would’ve changed the debate between the parties, shoving racism, misogyny and other areas of Trump expertise to the margins. 

Kasich adviser John Weaver is convinced that his candidate, who was popular with independents and Democrats, would’ve prevailed. In an e-mail he wrote:

Without getting into all the issue differences, Kasich would have carried around 90 percent of Republicans, a majority of indies, and more disaffected Dems than any recent GOP nominee. He clearly would have won Ohio, put MI and PA well into play, at least -- and reversed the trend with Hispanics. She would have been on the defensive the entire race, running in the mud to get Kasich as low as her . . . complete reversal of today.

Early polling is unreliable. But it emphatically supported Weaver’s case. Beginning in late fall of 2015, polls showed Kasich consistently leading Clinton in a general-election matchup, sometimes by sizable margins. “These are just facts,” Weaver e-mailed. Unlike Trump, Kasich would have run a professional campaign seamlessly integrated with Republican leaders in Washington, enabling it to fire on multiple cylinders.

Kasich almost certainly would’ve won the character contest. The news media, Republican Party and Clinton’s own actions have combined to give her dismal ratings on trustworthiness. In a late September CNN poll, before disclosure of Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tape, only 36 percent of likely voters said she is “honest and trustworthy.” Amazingly, 44 percent said Trump is.

Yet the poll also hints at the limits of the character attack. Despite her poor showing, Clinton still led Trump in the poll overall by six points.

Kasich is no Trump. He has a good record to tout. And Bush would’ve been an excellent ambassador to Hispanic voters. If Clinton possessed one silver bullet in a contest against the Ohio governor, it would probably have been fiscal policy -- the inevitable, unvarying GOP obsession with tax cuts for the wealthiest.

During his presidential campaign, Kasich promised to reduce the top income tax rate from 39.6 percent (plus a 3.8 Medicare surtax) to 28 percent while eliminating the estate tax and reducing taxes on capital gains and on businesses. (He also supported a balanced-budget amendment. Yikes.)

Unlike Trump, both Kasich and Bush convey compassion for the poor. But American voters have been through “compassionate conservatism” once before, and the experience was not encouraging. Meanwhile, a majority of Americans consistently tell Gallup that they believe the wealthy pay too little in taxes. (In April 2016, 61 percent said so.)

Trump’s incomparable character flaws have obscured his disastrous tax policy. Running against Kasich, Clinton would have resorted to highlighting his tax plan, perhaps daily. Delivering even more gains to the wealthy while leaving enormous budget deficits for everyone else is not most Americans’ idea of fairness.

We’ll never know how a Clinton-Kasich matchup might have progressed or ended. Maybe Kasich would’ve ended up in the White House. If not, his defeat might have shocked Republicans into finally realizing that their fiscal policies are indefensible. Trump’s candidacy is forcing the party to reckon with racism and sexism deep in its base. That’s enough for now. A reckoning on taxes awaits.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net