Bush lines on taxes have a familiar ring

Posted September 9, 2015

— Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush used a Wall Street Journal opinion piece to outline the tax proposal he was scheduled to roll out more fully in Garner Wednesday, and his last line has a familiar ring to it.

"To achieve these policies, we have to change the way Washington works," Bush declared in his column, which starts off by blasting President Barack Obama's economic policies.

Flash back to December 2007, when would-be candidates were lining up to vie for their parties' nominations.

"I know I haven't spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington," declared one would-be contender. "But I've been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change."

The contender's name: Barack Obama, who was then a first-term U.S. senator. Like Bush, who is now out of office, he was playing the outsider card.

The two-term Democrat won't be on the ballot next year, but Bush and other Republicans are defining themselves in opposition to Obama as much as they are Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

"Low growth, crony capitalism and easy debt – that’s President Obama’s economic agenda in a nutshell, and the tax code has helped make it possible. It’s past time for a change," Bush wrote in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal.

But it's not hard to find where Bush and Obama hit the same beats on the campaign trail. Consider this from Bush: "First, I want to lower taxes and make the tax code simple, fair and clear. It should be easy to understand and make it easy for people to fill out their own tax forms."

Obama made a similar promise when he spoke to the Tax Policy Center in 2007.

"When I’m President, we’ll put in place a system where 40 million Americans with a job and a bank account who take the standard deduction can do their taxes in less than five minutes," he said.

At the time, he was embracing a plan that would allow the government to send what amounts to a bill based on withholding information submitted by employers and banks. That idea has since stalled, and PolitiFact rates it as a broken promise by Obama.

Even on more substantive issue, Bush and Obama seemingly share some policy aims.

"I want to eliminate the convoluted, lobbyist-created loopholes in the code. For years, wealthy individuals have deducted a much greater share of their income than everyone else," Bush said.

In his 2007 speech, Obama took aim at "special interests," those that lobbyists work for, as well as loopholes that benefit wealthy individuals and corporations.

"Instead of having all of us pay our fair share, we've got over $1 trillion worth of loopholes in the corporate tax code," he said. "This isn't the invisible hand of the market at work. It's the successful work of special interests."

There are reasons for those similarities, and limits to how far they carry, said North Carolina State University political science professor Andrew Taylor. Mainstream politicians of both political parties, he said, are generally operating within a context where they will claim to limit the scope and growth of government, rein in special favors given to the wealthy and make bureaucracies easier to deal with.

"It is a fairly narrow debate, which is why you hear some of the same things coming out of the mouths of presidential candidates of both political candidates," Taylor said.

This can lead to some uncomfortable poll results an issues for candidates to deal with.

For example, conservative pollster Rasmussen found in a survey this month that 36 percent of likely Republican voters believe Bush has more in common with Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner, than with the average GOP voter when it comes to the major issues facing the nation.

As with Obama, some of the language that Clinton has used is not all that different from Bush. Consider, as the Christian Science Monitor reported, that the Democrat would pay for an expansion of higher education funding "by closing tax loopholes and expenditures for the most fortunate." More specifically, Reuters has explained that Clinton would like to close the "carried interest tax loophole that allows private equity fund managers to pay a lower tax rate on much of their earnings." That's not far off from Bush's pledge to close loopholes allowing "wealthy individuals have deducted a much greater share of their income than everyone else."

The difference between what Bush and fellow Republicans and Democrats such as Clinton are offering has to do with how those tax plans are framed and what they would be aimed at doing, Taylor said.

Democrats, he said, emphasize using the tax code to "bring about greater equality from an economic standpoint," specifically to directly grow the middle class.

"Republicans, on the other side, say policy should be used to stimulate economic growth," Taylor said. "Republican candidates tend to couch their economic arguments in this growth thesis."

That greater growth, GOP candidate argue, will tend to lift all boats from the top down.

The thesis is on display in Bush's op-ed, in which he writes, "I believe that the tax code should no longer be an impediment to the nation’s competitiveness with China, Europe and the rest of the world."

He calls for lower corporate tax rates and allowing companies to immediately deduct new capital investments. It's worth noting, however, Bush says he would pay for those changes in part by closing corporate tax deductions, many of them the same kind of loopholes Obama took aim at in 2007.


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