A real GOP populist agenda is also a blueprint for bipartisanship


By Jennifer Rubin


The Washington Post


Conservative Henry Olsen writes, “Republicans push tax plans that overwhelmingly benefit their donor and executive class,” even though traditional right-wingers (Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, for example) lost with a trickle-down, anti-government message.


Olsen observes: “The traditional Republican policy agenda is a political zombie, a relic that once served our nation well but is out of touch with what Americans want today. It doesn’t have to be this way. Mr. Trump and some of his supporters had good ideas for a reformed Republican Party that fuses conservative and populist elements into an alloy stronger than either on its own.” There is a smart way and a not-so-smart way to adopt populist themes.


The not-so-smart way would be to fan the flames of xenophobia, create havoc with international trade wars and cut legal immigration, as Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., wants to do. That makes for rotten policy, and an emotional backlash, as we saw in the Virginia elections this month.


The smart way is to adopt tax, health-care and job policies that are aimed at boosting middle- and lower-class incomes and promoting upward mobility.


On taxes, Olsen would like to see personal exemptions restored and the child tax credit refundable against payroll taxes, with smaller cuts for corporations and no cut for wealthy individuals. (I’ve supported a reduction in the payroll tax, which is akin to Olsen’s plan.) In addition, expansion of the earned income tax credit to spur work should be a no-brainer.


The current Senate plan, according to the left-leaning Tax Policy Center, is a policy outrage and a slap in the face of modest-income Americans:


We find the bill would reduce taxes on average for all income groups in both 2019 and 2025. In general, higher income households receive larger average tax cuts as a percentage of after-tax income, with the largest cuts as a share of income going to taxpayers in the 95th to 99th percentiles of the income distribution. On average in 2027, taxes would rise modestly for the lowest-income group, change little for middle-income groups, and decrease for higher-income groups. Compared to current law, 9 percent of taxpayers would pay more in 2019, 12 percent in 2025, and 50 percent in 2027.


No tax bill is preferable to that tax bill, which will drag down the economy as a whole with a pile of new debt.


As for health care, Americans have let us know they want Medicaid to remain intact, protection for preexisting conditions and subsidized coverage for the middle and working classes. Sorry, libertarians, but that means spending more and not less on health care. Entitlement reform needs to be directed at those best able to shoulder the costs of retirement and retiree health care.


On the job front, infrastructure spending, streamlined and reformed job-training, enhanced subsidies for those displaced by trade or technological advances (with an eye on enhancing skills and transitioning to new jobs) and financial incentives to relocate to job-producing locales should all be examined.


Several points about such an agenda should be noted. First, there is little public support for a libertarian approach to economic and health-care issues. Republicans will get run over and continue to lose on one legislative battle after another if they continue to insist on you’re-on-your-own policies. Second, we shouldn’t be shedding revenue through big tax cuts at a time we recognize that the middle and working classes need more assistance with health care, job training, college payments, etc. Tax reform, not tax cuts, should be the current focus (e.g. corporate base broadening must pay for rate cuts). Third, virtually everything in the populist GOP agenda Olsen favors would be acceptable to - even welcomed by - a great many Democrats. Conversely, if Republicans don’t drop their obsession with helping the rich and corporations and begin to focus on the needs of those Trump voters, Democrats surely will - either by moderate approaches such as the ones described above or by vastly more radical schemes.


Jennifer Rubin is a Washington Post columnist.