May 12, 2016
Today’s meeting with Paul Ryan is not the only Trump-related storyline. There’s also the matter of taxes. Both his personal returns and proposed tax policy are back for a new round of scrutiny.
As usual, Trump is attempting something we’ve not seen in recent generations, if ever. He’s reworking his tax plan for the general election, pivoting from $10 trillion in estimated revenue cuts to raising taxes on “the rich” while concentrating on middle class and business tax decreases.
He claims his original plan was just a starting point for negotiations with Congress. For Trump skeptics/haters, it’s another reason to distrust him. Very convenient to have large cuts for the GOP primary while shifting focus to worry about deficit control now.
At the same time, he’s enlisted Larry Kudrow and Stephen Moore to assist with his revision. The first participated in the Reagan Administration, the second is affiliated with the Heritage Foundation. It’s not like Trump is teaming up with Bernie here.
While it highlights Trump’s uh flexibility on policy, it also sets a helpful precedent if he can get away with it. Candidates are expected to release detailed policy proposals months ahead of any primary or caucus.
Its supposed to show a candidate is serious, has access to proper policy advisors, and provide time for various analysts to calculate the financial impact. All well and good, but nobody believes these (sometimes) intricately assembled documents will actually get implemented.
As a result, Carly Fiorina refused to participate. Instead she issued a statement of intentions, indicating her core principles for tax and budgetary reform. That didn’t fly. She spent valuable media time explaining why she wasn’t playing along.
It had little to do with her failure to draw votes, but like Ted Cruz’s decision to name her his running mate while he was trailing, the precedent isn’t likely to create imitators. Trump may have more luck changing the rules.
A couple/few months ago, Trump sat down with the New York Times editorial board. Reputedly, he indicated his immigration policy was just as malleable as his tax plan is becoming. The Times chat was off the record, and Trump resisted calls by opponents to release the transcripts.
If his tax adjustment doesn’t cause any major side-effects, look for movement on this too. Trump is particularly well situated to change things as he goes. His fans will abide any shifts. His detractors won’t accept anything he does. Many undecided or vaguely Trump-leaning voters may prefer evidence he won’t stick to things.
With a better opponent different story, but plenty of voters are looking for an excuse to vote against Hillary. If Trump shows everything is negotiable, a voter can tell themselves he’ll do the things they like and is just kidding/posturing on the positions they don’t.
Then we have his personal tax returns, the ones we are not going to see. We will not see them before the election. We probably won’t see them after the election. He says he can’t safely release them because he’s in the middle of an audit. Trump “hopes” he’s able to show his returns before November, but is at the mercy of the audit process.
He was also looking forward to winning the class action lawsuit against Trump University, the one a judge just delayed until after the election. If his attorneys can postpone a trial, they can delay an audit.
The tradition of presidential candidates releasing tax returns is semi-recent. Abraham Lincoln didn’t show his. Federal income taxes were still 50 years in the future.
FDR’s library wound up releasing 30 years of returns (everything from when income taxes began until his death), but none were available while he was alive. Adlai Stevenson was the first presidential candidate to do so in 1952, having been challenged by VP candidate Richard Nixon.
The future president (who would face serious tax problems after resigning) pushed Stevenson and his running mate to show their numbers as part of his pushback against a slush fund scandal that threatened to cost him his spot on Eisenhower’s ticket.
Not only did Nixon’s “Checkers” speech make TV and political history, but he launched the first salvo that led to customary disclosure. That took a while. As late as the mid-1970s, Gerald Ford released partial summaries, but nothing approaching a full return.
Since then, tax disclosure has increased in each cycle, moving from Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan showing a single year of pre-presidential returns to Jeb Bush releasing 34 years worth last year. Hillary Clinton has each year from 2000 in the public domain. Most of the previous decade was already covered by her husband.
In 2012, Mitt Romney was harassed into providing a couple years of recent returns. He complied faster than Trump and is now joining the chorus of individuals pushing The Donald.
As he did when the issue first surfaced a couple months ago, Romney is theorizing Trump is resisting because the returns contain a bombshell. Many figure they would indicate Trump is less wealthy/makes less money than he claims.
It’s quite the switch from Mitt’s experience. Romney caught heat for the low average tax rate he paid because most of his income was from capital gains rather than ordinary income. He had to defend doing well and keeping his bill low.
If Trump wins after stonewalling on his returns, we may well see a return to the days where candidates kept their returns to themselves. For the past 40 years, completing an extensive financial disclosure form is mandatory. That’s probably enough.
We need to see if Trump can change the unofficial rules on altering tax policy proposals on the fly and releasing personal returns. Even if he wins, it’s possible it’s viewed as a one-time, one-candidate exception and everything returns to normal by 2020 or 2024.
But much of what we expect from presidential candidates is arbitrary and doesn’t exactly go back to the days of FDR, let alone Lincoln. There are plenty of things to hate about the overall Trump experience, but this may wind up serving the public interest down the road.
Eliminating the full financial colonoscopy could expand our choices. Allowing more policy variation would prevent forcing candidates to defend each comma and semicolon they signed off on a year before the election.
Seems like a decent trade.