Why criticize what Trump is saying about his tax plan?

Just because some of what Trump says is incredible, we should not assume that everything he says is far-fetched.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters/File
A man reacts as U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump walks past following a campaign event at an airplane hanger in Rochester, New York (April 10, 2016).

Critics are blasting Donald Trump for saying his tax plan would be open to negotiation should it ever get to Congress.  There are plenty of reasons to criticize the presumptive GOP presidential candidate, but a willingness to find a middle ground on an important policy issue should not be one of them. How did stating the obvious become a political sin?

True, Trump has been somewhat ambiguous about what exactly he would agree to in a future congressional negotiation. But we are looking at two separate issues here: What does a politician want, and what would he settle for. I don’t see what’s wrong with a pol who 1) admits he isn’t going to get everything he wants and 2) gives voters a better idea of where he’d be willing to cut deals.

To my ear at least, Trump has not backed away from his basic plan: An enormous tax cut, mostly for high-income households. Absent details to the contrary, Trump’s plan remains built on a top individual rate of 25 percent, a top business rate of 15 percent, and a top rate on investment income of 20 percent.  I have not heard him change any of that.

This is what Trump told the Wall Street Journal’s Richard Rubin on May 9 (paywall):

My core beliefs are I want a major tax cut. And I’m only being honest with people. You can’t just say this is what my plan will be. You have to negotiate this with many other people, and those many other people are congressmen and senators, etc., and everybody knows that you have to do that.”

And what exactly is wrong with saying it?

Sure, Trump has built an extensive record of changing his policy story for different audiences. One day, he wants to bomb the s--t out of ISIS. Soon after, he’s echoing the isolationism of the 1930s by calling for America First. And, yes, this makes people cynical.   

But we should acknowledge that part of the problem is that voters and pundits want it every which way. We demand that candidates lay out specific, detailed policy agendas. Then, we blast them for flip-flopping when they move even slightly away from those promises. Finally, we complain that Washington can’t get anything done because lawmakers won’t compromise.

Sure, there are some on the left and right who consider compromise at least a venal sin. But most Americans are frustrated—or at least say they are frustrated—by ongoing gridlock in Washington. Promising to break that logjam was the heart of Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008 and, to some degree, it is Hillary Clinton’s pitch in 2016.

And it has been a key message from Trump, who, after all, did write a book called The Art of the Deal.

I get that Trump’s words of the past few days have been, shall we say, encumbered by recent history. After all, he’s been claiming for months that he’s proposing to raise taxes for hedge fund managers when, in reality, he’d give them an enormous tax cut. He’s insisted that he could cut taxes by nearly $10 trillion, leave Social Security and Medicare untouched, and balance the budget in eight years—against all laws of arithmetic and economics.

But just because some of what Trump says is incredible, we should not assume that everything he says is far-fetched.  It shouldn’t be so hard to keep two ideas in our heads at the same time: Trump has an ideal tax plan. That’s the one he proposed last year. And he has an idea of what he expects to see as his plan works its way through the Washington sausage machine. That’s what he’s been talking about over the past few days.

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems useful to know this. 

This article first appeared at TaxVox.

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