Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is a weekly columnist and senior writer for The American Prospect. He also writes for the Plum Line blog at The Washington Post and The Week and is the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

Recent Articles

Where the Candidates Stand On Taxes

Tax day is a good time to wonder just what sort of changes to the tax code we might expect when we get a new president 21 months from now. Most of them haven't produced lengthy position papers yet, but we can get at least a preliminary idea of where they'd like to take the tax code. So let's take a look at what we know so far about the candidates and their ideas on this topic:

Jeb Bush: Bush hasn't released a tax plan, but he has refused to sign Grover Norquist's pledge to never ever, ever raise taxes, as most congressional Republicans—including Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio—have. In a 2012 congressional hearing, Bush was asked about a question Republican candidates got at a presidential primary debate, where they were asked whether they would accept a deal that included one dollar of tax increases for every ten dollars of spending cuts. Everyone had said they'd walk away from such a deal, so horrifying would even a tiny increase in taxes be. Bush replied, "If you could bring to me a majority of people to say that we're going to have $10 of spending cuts for $1 of revenue enhancement—put me in, Coach." Remarkably, this is taken by many Republicans as evidence that Bush is some kind of fiscal apostate.

Will Bush deal with these questions by coming out with a tax plan full of upper-end cuts? I wouldn't be surprised.

Marco Rubio: Rubio has the most specific plan of any of the candidates so far. His plan contains some provisions that would benefit people of modest incomes, but it also has huge giveaways to the wealthy. He would reduce the current seven income tax brackets down to two: 15 percent for individuals earning under $75,000 a year, and 35 percent for everyone over that. It would mean a tax increase for some people in the middle—for instance, if you earn $100,000 a year, you're currently paying a marginal rate of 25 percent, so your taxes would go up—but it also means a cut for those now paying the top rate of 39.6 percent.

But the real favor to the wealthy is the fact that Rubio would completely eliminate all taxes on capital gains, stock dividends, and inheritances. That's right, eliminate them. To zero. So congrats, Paris Hilton, you'll never have to pay a dime in taxes.

Rand Paul: Paul hasn't been all that specific about taxes, though he has said he wants to cut them by "hundreds of billions of dollars." He rejects the idea that cuts ought to be "deficit neutral"—that is, neither raise nor lower the deficit—meaning that his cuts would increase the deficit. He might argue that his dramatic spending cuts would offset the decreased revenue, but he also believes in the Tax Fairy, i.e. the idea that cutting taxes increases revenue. The section of Paul's website on taxes is 159 vague words about a "plan" that as of yet doesn't exist. "My tax plan will get the IRS out of your life, and out of the way of every job creator in America," it reads. "My plan will also cut spending and balance the budget in just five years. It will be the largest tax cut in American history and a tax cut that will leave more money in the paychecks of every worker in America." Paul has also advocated a flat tax.

Scott Walker: Walker doesn't have a campaign yet, nor does he have a tax plan. But his record in Wisconsin is such that it's been touted by none other than Grover Norquist himself. Walker has slashed taxes so much that because of the decreased revenue he was forced to miss a payment on the state's debt. He has toyed with the idea of eliminating the state's income tax, and said that eliminating the federal income tax "sounds pretty tempting" and that he'd like to reduce income tax rates.

Ted Cruz: Though Cruz hasn't released a formal plan either, he proposes eliminating the IRS and instituting "a simple flat tax that allows every American to fill out his or her taxes on a postcard." Without an IRS to read and process those postcards, the task would presumably be taken up by a cadre of tiny magical creatures, each with gossamer wings and the face of Ayn Rand.

Hillary Clinton: As yet, we've heard nothing from her on this subject.

Presumably, all or most of these candidates (and whoever else ultimately decides to get in the race) will produce more details in the coming days. But at the moment we can say with a fair degree of confidence that the eventual Republican nominee is going to be advocating a reduction in income tax rates, likely along with some kind of reduction in investment taxes (not to mention corporate taxes, which all Republicans want to reduce or eliminate, but which I haven't discussed here). They will surely say that therein lies the key to spectacular economic growth and a rising tide for all. Democrats will respond that Republicans just want giveaways for the wealthy. In other words, it'll be like most presidential elections. 

Photo of the Day, Meet 'n Greet Edition

That would be one Hillary R. Clinton, sharing a cup of nourishing coffee with some folks from Le Claire, Iowa. If you've ever been to one of these spectacles, you have to admire the ordinary people who find themselves chatting with a candidate as a surly scrum of photographers jostles each other to get right in their faces and snap away. In my experience, the adults tend to do their best to be game about it, politely interacting until they can move along, while it's the kids who are more likely to be unable to help themselves from calling attention to the artifice of it all. Of course, if you're an Iowan, this kind of thing is old hat.

It Turns Out People Can Be Persuasive When They're High

I'm fairly certain she's a "yes" on legalization. (Flickr/Jonathan Piccolo)

The Pew Research Center has a new poll out on marijuana legalization, and in many ways it's about what you'd expect if you've been paying attention to public opinion on this topic lately. Overall support for legalization is at 53 percent, and young people are more supportive than older people, among other things. We might have expected this movement simply on the basis of generational replacement—the "silent generation," those now over 70, were really the last ones to have no experience whatsoever with the drug, while everyone after has.

In the poll, 19 percent of those older people say they've tried marijuana, compared to 59 percent of the next generation, the baby boomers. Even if you yourself didn't try it, if many people you know have, you're probably aware that it doesn't turn people into psychotic maniacs a la "Reefer Madness" or send them rushing to take heroin after their first puff. That would at least make you open to considering legalization, and as more of those older people die off and are replaced by young people among whom pot is commonplace, support for legalization in the public as a whole was destined to rise.

But there's something else I found more interesting, and it's revealed in the bottom graph in this pair:

Pew Research Center

What we have here isn't just generational replacement, though that is present (in the difference between the bottom line and the others). It's also the change within each cohort, roughly since 1992 or so, when Bill Clinton got elected and the triumph of the hippies was complete. The fact that those lines go up means that people are actually changing their minds.

Why? The simplest answer is that we had an ongoing debate about it, and the pro-legalization side got the better of that debate. It's tempting (and sometimes correct) to scoff when someone says they want to have a "national conversation" or "initiate a debate" about something, because that's often a poor substitute for action. But in some cases, an extended debate really does produce change. That seems to be what has happened here.

Can Republicans Make Hillary Clinton the Mitt Romney of 2016?

Republicans have lots of time to come up with a central theme with which they can attack Hillary Clinton, and right now there are a bunch of GOP pollsters scrolling through real estate listings for the lake houses they're going to buy with all the money they'll make from running polls and focus groups intended to figure it out. According to Eli Stokols of Politico, there's an early contender:

Forget about the Arkansas days, the small-bore scandals, her health care plan, and most everything else from the 1990s. A consensus is forming within the Republican Party that the plan of attack against Hillary Clinton should be of a more recent vintage, rooted in her accumulation of wealth and designed to frame her as removed from the concerns of average Americans.

With close to 20 announced and prospective GOP 2016 candidates, there’s no singular, unified messaging effort yet. But interviews with GOP consultants, party officials and the largest conservative super PACs point to an emerging narrative of a wealthy, out-of-touch candidate who plays by her own set of rules and lives in a world of private planes, chauffeured vehicles and million-dollar homes.

The out-of-touch plutocrat template is a familiar one: Democrats used it to devastating effect against Republican Mitt Romney in 2012. While Hillary Clinton’s residences in New York and Washington may not have car elevators, there’s still a lengthy trail of paid speeches, tone-deaf statements about the family finances and questions about Clinton family foundation fundraising practices that will serve as cornerstones of the anti-Clinton messaging effort.

Yes, it's a "familiar template." But it's a familiar template Democrats use to attack Republicans. There have been plenty of wealthy Democratic presidential candidates before, but that attack isn't nearly as effective on them. It isn't that you can't convince voters that a rich president won't be sensitive to their concerns, because you can. But there has to be some plausible connection to policy for it to really work.

The policy content is what gives the personal argument a foundation. The personal explains the policy and makes it vivid. So for instance, Democrats argued that Mitt Romney's wealth showed why he wouldn't be on the side of ordinary people. In this case, Republicans are trying to argue that Hillary Clinton's wealth shows the same thing, but her response is going to be, well there are two candidates here, and one of them wants to cut taxes for the wealthy, opposes increasing the minimum wage, opposes mandating equal pay for women, opposes paid family leave, and opposes expanded overtime, and it ain't me.

In order to illustrate this, I took 60 seconds and made a table:

I used Bernie Sanders because he's probably running for president, but you could put any number of people there. And similarly, you could put lots of other Republicans, particularly Jeb Bush, in the upper left-hand corner. When you have a rich candidate advocating policies that benefit the rich, the personal details and the policy arguments complement and enhance one another. When there's a dissonance between the two, it isn't quite as compelling.

Which does mean that it would be somewhat harder for Democrats to make the argument against Marco Rubio than it was to make it against Romney (or it would be against Bush). They wouldn't have those amusing/horrifying stories and symbols to offer, like Romney's car elevator or the people he laid off. But what they'll still have going for them is that the idea that Republicans are the party of the rich is the default assumption voters start with. You don't have to do any work to explain that or convince them it's true. On the other hand, Republicans will have to do quite a bit of work to convince voters that Clinton is going to serve the wealthy and not ordinary people, for no other reason than the fact that she's a Democrat.

What Republicans can do, though, is enlist the news media to help them in their task. If they establish this now as one of their key arguments against her, reporters will be on the lookout for events and moments that reinforce it. What did she order at Chipotle? Are her culinary habits sufficiently down-market? Is that an expensive outfit she's wearing? Is she really "connecting" with reg'lar Americans?

After a few hundred stories asking these questions again and again, it might start to have an impact. But it won't be easy.

Photo of the Day, Springtime Edition

The cherry blossoms are blooming here in Washington, which means there's an intoxicating smell in the air and young people's hearts turn to thoughts of love. Unfortunately, the Washington spring only lasts about a week and a half, after which we segue into the unspeakably hot and humid summer. Contrary to popular belief, the city was not actually built on a swamp, but a month from now it will feel that way.