Published June 19, 2015
Voters will weigh many factors when assessing the Republican candidates for president in 2016, including their professional experience, leadership qualities, political dispositions, and other important attributes.
These are all important considerations, of course. But governing is mainly a question of deciding on a policy and then implementing it. And so voters will be eager to hear what the candidates would actually do if elected.
To date, most of the candidates have been focused on introducing themselves to voters and providing an overall sense of their governing philosophies. Many of the announced or likely candidates currently are in office, or have run for president previously, and thus have a record that provides a guide to the kinds of policies they would support if elected. But that’s not the same thing as articulating specific plans to address the big issues of the moment.
There have been some notable exceptions to the general absence of specific plans. Governor Chris Christie — not yet a candidate — has spelled out plans for long-term entitlement reform and for reforming taxes and boosting economic growth. Senator Marco Rubio, in a series of speeches and articles, has proposed specific reforms for the tax code, Social Security, health care, and low-income programs. And Senator Rand Paul announced his own tax plan recently in a Wall Street Journal editorial.
But, by and large, most of the candidates still haven’t said very much about what exactly they would do if elected. That is likely to change as the jockeying intensifies in the run-up to the first debate on August 6.
As the candidates reveal more in the coming weeks, GOP primary voters should keep what follows in mind when they hear the politicians make promises about taxes, Obamacare, and the federal budget.
Taxes. Most if not all of the serious GOP candidates will promise to cut and reform taxes to boost economic growth, and it is good that there is relative unanimity on this point. But there’s a big difference between a realistic, pro-growth tax policy and one that promises the moon but will never get enacted.
Take, for instance, Senator Rand Paul’s flat-tax proposal. He would displace today’s income, payroll, and other lesser taxes with a 14.5 percent tax that applies to all income above $50,000 per year. The plan sounds great to some voters because it would eliminate all of the complexity of current law. But it stands no chance of getting enacted for two reasons. First, it’s too big of a tax cut for the highest earners. No matter how many deductions and credits are eliminated, if you lower the top rate from over 40 percent today (including the tax hikes in Obamacare) to 14.5 percent, the result will be big tax reductions for the well-to-do. Second, the revenue loss would be massive. Senator Paul says his plan would cut taxes by $2 trillion over a decade, and that’s assuming it will boost growth by more than 1 percent annually. Independent assessments will show the revenue loss to be far higher than $2 trillion. But even at $2 trillion, it cannot be accommodated within a realistic fiscal plan. An aggressive program of spending restraint, aimed mainly at entitlements, could cut hundreds of billions out of the budget over the coming decade, but much of that is needed to prevent deficits and debt from spiraling out of control.
The country needs a pro-growth tax-reform plan that is appealing to the broad middle class and cuts taxes by hundreds of billions, not trillions, of dollars over a decade.
Obamacare. It is near certain that all of the GOP candidates will run hard against Obamacare and promise to roll it back. But if a candidate cannot articulate a coherent plan to replace Obamacare, then his pledges to repeal it are largely empty. Most Americans disapprove of Obamacare, but they don’t want to go back to the pre-Obamacare status quo either. They want reform, just not the government-dominated version that passed in 2010.
To be credible, a replacement plan will need to have a reasonable approach to providing secure and affordable insurance to people with expensive pre-existing conditions, and a way to broaden insurance enrollment to the uninsured without the mandates and bureaucracy of Obamacare. And, to avoid the mistake of Senator John McCain in 2008, the plan should not upend employer-based health insurance for the tens of millions of Americans enrolled in those plans.
Fortunately, there are already two Obamacare replacement plans in Congress that meet these tests: the plan introduced by senators Richard Burr and Orrin Hatch along with Representative Fred Upton, and the plan introduced by Representative Tom Price. The GOP candidate that embraces one of these plans, and modifies it to make it his own, will have gone a long way to winning the policy debate on health care.
The Federal Budget. Most of the GOP candidates will be promising tax cuts and defense increases as well as low deficits and maybe even a balanced budget. How will they make it all work? If their answer is cuts in foreign aid, congressional pay, and the federal bureaucracy, they shouldn’t be taken seriously.
The federal budget is driven by entitlement spending. It is not possible to cut taxes, or even just hold the line on them, without proposing ways to slow the growth of the major health entitlements and Social Security over the medium and long term. There’s no particular reason a Republican candidate needs to promise to balance the budget within ten years. The near-term priority should be stronger economic growth and putting a stop to the debt hemorrhage of the past eight years. But it is necessary to begin restraining entitlements now to prevent a fiscal and economic catastrophe in ten or 15 years’ time.
The 2016 election will present an opportunity for a presidential candidate to offer the country an ambitious vision of government reform. Among other things, that will mean tax reform to promote growth, a replacement plan for Obamacare that delivers lower costs and better health care, and a budget plan that steers the country away from fiscal ruin.
All of that is doable, but it has to be pursued as part of a realistic plan, not a pipedream. It is the job of GOP primary voters to find the candidate who is best able to articulate this kind of plan and has the leadership skills to make it happen.
— James C. Capretta is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.