Aug 30, 2017

Trump's tax speech: light on substance, heavy on populism

Ross D. Franklin / AP

You won't learn anything new about the secretly-negotiated details of the Republican tax plan, when President Trump visits a manufacturing company in Springfield, Missouri.

What you will learn is how Trump plans to sell the GOP tax plan, according to a taste of today's speech given by White House officials on a phone call Tuesday with reporters.

Between the lines: Even though Trump's early tax plans largely follow Republican orthodoxy — major, across-the-board tax cuts — he'll be selling it like Huey Long. The way White House officials tell it, Trump will describe how he'll "un-rig" the economy, resurrect "Main Street" and end "the special interest loopholes that have only benefited the wealthy and powerful few."

  • A telling example: The Wall Street Journal's top tax reporter Richard Rubin asked the officials on the call how they could claim their tax reform was taking things away from the well-connected few when the president's plans so far have repealed the estate tax, lowered the top rate and lowered the corporate rate.
  • A White House official on the call responded to Rubin by portraying a massive corporate tax cut as a populist measure. "How I would look at this, from an American worker's perspective, it's basically a 'made in America tax.' ... If you look at where our business tax rate is compared to the rest of the world... if you don't bring that down, get us more in line with the rest of the world, give us a competitive advantage or at least level the playing field, it makes no sense."

What else to expect from Trump's first major speech selling tax reform:

  • A "why not how" speech: Trump won't mention specific tax rates or show his hand on controversial issues like whether to allow companies to fully expense equipment; instead he'll explain why tax reform is needed.
  • Theme: "Springfield is the place where Route 66, commonly referred to as the Main Street of America, got its start," said an official on the call. "And now it's going to be the place where America's Main Street begins its comeback."

Bottom line: Many of the big issues on tax reform remain unsettled; and tomorrow's speech by the president won't provide any clarity on those. The White House wants Congress to take the lead and own these difficult decisions — e.g. the fight over full expensing — but expect Trump to put more gusto into his tax reform sales pitch than he did with health care. (He's genuinely enthusiastic about tax cuts whereas he never was with health reform. Whether he can remain focused, however, and avoid detours into rants about "fake news" and his myriad enemies, is another question.)

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