Carly Fiorina put Donald Trump in his place with dart-like zingers and withering glares. Multiple GOP candidates ganged up on Trump with the pent-up rage that a group of smaller kids might bring to the task of taking down the schoolyard bully. Marco Rubio showed unexpected pluck and heart. Scott Walker continued his slow-motion fade. All of that theatrical stuff matters in terms of where the GOP primary will head next.
But for purposes of judging what last night’s GOP debate at the Ronald Reagan library tells us about the general election, here are two of the most important takeaways, ones that senior Democrats will see as very significant:
1) None of the other GOP candidates agreed with Donald Trump’s call for higher taxes on wealthy investors.
2) The spectrum of the immigration debate ranged from a discussion of the legal and practical ins-and-outs of ending birthright citizenship and deporting 11 million people to an argument over which candidate is truly anti-“amnesty.” None addressed legalization in a remotely realistic fashion.
First, taxes. Moderator Jake Tapper pointed out that Trump believes “that the hedge fund guys are getting away with murder by paying a lower tax rate,” and asked whether the other candidates agree with his call for raising their taxes. John Kasich said he didn’t, because he doesn’t want to dis-incentivize investment. Mike Huckabee (who has said low tax rates paid by hedge-funders is unfair) called instead for a tax on consumption. Ben Carson suggested progressive taxation is “socialism.”
That brought this response from Trump:
“We’ve had a graduated tax system for many years, so it’s not a socialistic thing. What I’d like to do, and I’ll be putting in the plan in about two weeks, and I think people are going to like it, it’s a major reduction in taxes. It’s a major reduction for the middle class. The hedge fund guys won’t like me as much as they like me right now. I know them all, but they’ll pay more.
“I know people that are making a tremendous amount of money and paying virtually no tax, and I think it’s unfair.”
We don’t know what Trump will propose, but if he stays true to his word (a rather unsafe assumption), the effect of his overall forthcoming tax plan will be that “the hedge fund guys” end up with a higher tax burden. If so, Trump will be a true outlier in the GOP field. While Jeb Bush’s plan does close the carried interest loophole and contains middle class tax relief, his overall plan gives a huge windfall to the top one percent. Marco Rubio’s plan has similarly regressive priorities, eliminating taxes on capital gains and dividends entirely. It’s possible that in the end, only Trump’s plan will actually raise taxes on very high earners, while cutting them for the middle class — or, if not, his plan may still end up an outlier by being significantly less generous to the top earners than those of his rivals.
Trump’s suggestion that he “knows” all the hedge fund guys, and “knows” they are “paying virtually no tax,” is significant. He is confiding from the inside that his fellow top earners are profiting enormously from a tax code that is fundamentally “unfair.” As I’ve noted, Trump is ripping the mask off of the GOP’s ongoing “populist” makeover, revealing that the GOP still remains in thrall to the same old supply-side dogma that dictates that the other GOP candidates continue vowing to cut taxes for the rich.
If Trump does roll out a plan that actually raises taxes on the wealthy — again, a very big if — the response from his rivals will be very interesting. One looks forward to the spectacle of Rubio — who defends eliminating taxes on capital gains and dividends on the grounds that investment helps bartenders like his father — explaining to Trump that cutting taxes on the rich is the true populist position. As Brian Beutler has noted, Trump’s status as a billionaire, paradoxically, would give him a decisive built-in advantage in such an exchange.
On immigration, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio did mount a genuine challenge to Trump’s overall restrictionist message, making a case for cultural tolerance and inclusion. But the candidates ended up bogged down in an extensive debate about whether to end birthright citizenship and deport the 11 million. And when the topic turned to actual reform, even Rubio — and to a lesser extent, Bush — remained stuck in a position where legalization must wait until some absolute, undefined state of border security is attained first. Rubio — the GOP’s great Latino hope — even endorsed a wall on the border.
Two of the most important factors in the 2012 election — by the admission of Republicans themselves — were the GOP alienation of Latinos and public perceptions that Mitt Romney’s policies favored the rich. What did last night’s debate say about the prospects of Republican progress on both those fronts?
* TRUMP: CLIMATE CHANGE IS ‘WEATHER’: On Morning Joe today, Trump was asked about last night’s discussion of climate change. Trump responded:
“I consider climate change to be not one of our big problems. I consider it to be not a big problem at all. I think it’s weather. I think it’s weather changes. It could be some man-made something. But, you know, you look at China, they’re doing nothing about it. Other countries are doing nothing about it. It’s a big planet.”
Well, on this issue at least, Trump is not saying anything that will imperil his chances among GOP primary voters.
* TRUMP FAILED BIG TEST AT DEBATE? Adam Nagourney makes a case that I think we’ll be hearing a lot of from analysts: Donald Trump didn’t make the transition (not yet, anyway) from showy front-man to someone that GOP voters can picture as president. To wit:
For nearly 30 minutes, not long after the debate began, this most colorful of candidates faded to the sidelines as his rivals debated in detail issues like Syria and how to deal with Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president, subjects that Mr. Trump appeared to struggle with when the questions came to him….By the end of the night, it was the familiar image of Mr. Trump as the jaunty brawler, and even bully, that was likely to again be the takeaway.
That sounds awfully optimistic. We’ll see.
* YES, TRUMP ASKED JEB FOR CASINO IN FLORIDA: One of the most interesting moments at the debate came when Jeb Bush accused Donald Trump of coming to him when he was Florida governor and trying to set up a casino in Florida, offering campaign contributions in the process. Jeb recounted that he declined the casino. Trump accused Jeb of lying. Glenn Kessler brings the facts and explains that Jeb has this one right.
My favorite thing about this exchange: Trump was visibly more offended by Jeb’s suggestion that he hadn’t gotten his way than he was by the idea that he’d tried to buy favors from the Florida Governor.
* WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO GOP HATRED OF OBAMACARE? Jonathan Cohn has a great catch: The topic of Obamacare, which was front and center during the 2012 Republican debates, was barely mentioned last night:
This is happening at a time when millions of people are getting health insurance through Medicaid and regulated private insurance….Whatever people feel about the law in theory, they like the protections it provides in practice….In 2011, that support simply didn’t matter, perhaps because the benefits were purely hypothetical. Now they are real — and making a difference in the lives of millions of people. Maybe that’s why Republicans are a little more skittish now.
The GOP candidates will all have to pay lip service to repeal to get through the primary, of course. It’ll be interesting to see how much time and conviction they bring to the task.
* FROM SCOTT WALKER, A SWING AND A MISS: Politico reports that the consensus is that Scott Walker missed another opportunity last night, and even Walker himself seems frustrated:
After the debate, he sounded exasperated for having received only two questions from the moderators. “Short of tackling someone I don’t know what more I could have done,” Walker said. “I aggressively interrupted Jake Tapper a bunch of times along the way, and short of an absolute brawl I don’t know what more one can do. We jumped in, and for us its quality and not quantity.”
Keep an eye on how the donors assess Walker’s prospects.
* AND ARE THERE CRACKS IN TRUMP’S ARMOR? Ronald Brownstein digs into polling to show that while Donald Trump may be doing very well among blue collar Republicans, there may be doubts about his temperament among college educated Republicans. One GOP pollster says:
“People get an idea of the temperament it takes to be a successful president … and get the idea that insulting every world leader who doesn’t agree with you is not in the interest of the United States. Lack of real knowledge about what to do is next; it’s going to get real old over time to say it takes good management.”
You’d think, anyway!