Cut the Hillary Chipotle chatter. How would 2016 hopefuls run US?

Two official candidates (Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz) and a presumed third (Chris Christie) have come out with bold plans on Social Security, big money in politics, and a flat tax. Are any of the ideas feasible?

Jim Cole/AP
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie takes a question during a town hall meeting in Londonderry, N.H., Wednesday. His Social Security plan is bold.

Enough already with Hillary Clinton’s Chipotle stop. Sure, it was a fun story at first, and the security cam photo of the former Secretary of State with a burrito bowl was pretty great. But let’s not get carried away with third-day hot takes about the significance of salsa choice. Sometimes lunch is a meal, not a bid for middle-class votes.

Let’s – gasp! – look at proposed policies instead. Yes, they’re out there, and they’re better indicators of a candidate’s possible performance in office than is consumption of saturated fats. True, details can be lacking at this point in the campaign, which is to say, early. But here are three whose very mention says a lot about the White House hopefuls doing the mentioning.

Chris Christie is all in on Social Security. In a word, the Social Security reform proposal released by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Tuesday is “bold.” It’s also possibly damaging to his not-yet-official candidacy. For him much depends on whether the deficit remains a big issue with Republican primary voters.

Governor Christie says he wants to cut spending on big federal entitlements by $1 trillion during the next decade, putting them back on a fiscally-sound basis. He proposes reducing Social Security benefits for retirees who have more than $80,000 a year in non-Social Security income, and eliminating them for those who earn more than $200,000 outside of federal benefits. Also, he’d raise the retirement age to 69, and the early retirement age to 64.

The first part of that may be relatively popular with the many voters. Why would relatively wealthy retirees need Uncle Sam’s cash? Not many people would be directly affected – limiting the potential angry phone calls to Christie HQ.

It’s the second part that could be a problem. Raising the retirement age affects ... pretty much all of America. (We’ll note here that Christie says no one now close to retirement would be affected by his proposals.) In effect, it’s an across-the-board benefit cut, and a big one.

As FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten muses, maybe Christie is making a play for serious Republicans. Maybe he’s just trying to get noticed. But polls show that Democrats and Republicans alike reject a retirement age increase.

“Christie’s plan may very well set him apart from his fellow Republicans. But it’s likely to set him apart from Republican voters as well,” writes Mr. Enten.

Clinton condemns super PAC monster. Reducing the influence of big money in politics is a cherished goal of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. In her swing through Iowa this week Mrs. Clinton embraced this goal, big-time – perhaps as part of her attempt to brand herself as a semi-populist working-class champion.

Clinton took particular aim at the super political action committees and other shadowy fundraising committees that can now raise huge amounts of cash from individual donors, virtually untraced, due largely to the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case.

The United States needs to “get unaccountable money out of [politics] once and for all, even if that takes a constitutional amendment,” said Clinton.

OK, how? This is a pretty complicated area of law. Does Clinton have a specific proposal?

“We do have a plan. We have a plan for my plan ... I’m going to be rolling out a lot of my policies,” Clinton told The Washington Post. “Stay tuned.”

What Clinton isn’t saying there is that it’s hard to make a real proposal here that matches her rhetoric. There are probably things presidents can do around the edges, in terms of disclosure laws and so forth – if they can get Congress to go along. Which in this case Clinton probably couldn’t.

But the key words here are “constitutional amendment.” Supreme Court rulings are the huge obstacles in the way of any substantial campaign finance reform. Presidents can’t budge those – and getting a constitutional amendment passed by the requisite three-quarters of the states is probably impossible in today’s polarized political age.

That’s a good rule of thumb, in fact. Any political proposal that depends on passage of a constitutional amendment is not feasible. (Yes, Marco Rubio – this means you and your proposed constitutional amendment to balance the budget, too.)

Ted Cruz wants taxes flat as a Texas plain. Finally, there’s Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s nascent tax plan. It involves something that at least one GOP presidential candidate promotes every four years – a flat tax.

It’s not so much a serious policy proposal as it is a signifier, an attempt by said candidate (Steve Forbes, Herman Cain, etc.) to distinguish themselves from the rest of the Republican field as the true proponent of low, simple rates.

Let’s explain. Senator Cruz, in his candidacy declaration speech at Liberty University, imagined a world without the Internal Revenue Service. He imagined “a simple flat tax that allows every American to fill out his or her taxes on a postcard.”

But the words “simple” and “flat tax” don’t naturally go together. Will there be deductions? That’s what makes tax un-simple for Americans who itemize, after all. Cruz has hinted that he’ll allow some kind of deduction for charitable contributions, and a mortgage exclusion. But if you allow those deductions, why not others?  There are hundreds of affected practices and industries here, and they all hire lobbyists. It could be a legislative mess.

The real stumbling block, though, is the rate. Given the amount of taxes paid by the wealthy at the top of today’s rate charts, it is difficult to flatten overall rates without increasing the tax burden on the lower and middle classes.

And that’s a problem when you’re trying to get elected president in the first place.

“A flat tax only further turns the 99 percent against the wealthy,” writes tax expert Tony Nitti in Forbes magazine.

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