The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Don’t count on Hillary Clinton self-destructing

As cringe-worthy as her retail political skills and empty as her policy portfolio may be, Republicans risk taking Hillary Clinton too lightly. The e-mail scandals and even the foreign-money scandals don’t seem to have lessened her grip on the Democratic Party. The New York Times warns:

The book does not hit shelves until May 5, but already the Republican Rand Paul has called its findings “big news” that will “shock people” and make voters “question” the candidacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich,” by Peter Schweizer — a 186-page investigation of donations made to the Clinton Foundation by foreign entities — is proving the most anticipated and feared book of a presidential cycle still in its infancy. . . . . He writes mainly in the voice of a neutral journalist and meticulously documents his sources, including tax records and government documents, while leaving little doubt about his view of the Clintons.
His reporting largely focuses on payments made to Mr. Clinton for speeches, which increased while his wife served as secretary of state, writing that “of the 13 Clinton speeches that fetched $500,000 or more, only two occurred during the years his wife was not secretary of state.”

A new book may convince Paul that she’s in for it now, but those of us who have watched the Clintons for decades know they are always able to slip the noose. With no viable Democratic backup, you can be sure no one book is going to pry Hillary Clinton’s fingers from the Democratic nomination. She has pined for this since 2007. I don’t mean to suggest these issues are unimportant. They are, and they will turn off a certain number of voters. But Republicans cannot come to believe that Clinton’s faults will be sufficient to beat her. That was the mistake Republicans made in 2012 — the Obama economy would justify a GOP president.

For one thing, she will have a carefully modulated agenda that tells centrists what they want to hear and liberals what they long to hear. Lots of “investments” and “family friendly” tax credits. Much talk will be devoted to early childhood education and unspecified “fixes” in Obamacare. Moreover, she will do a number on GOP plans to “balance the budget on the backs of the poor” or “bust the budget.” She will argue that corporations and the rich should pay more so the little guy can get ahead. How do we know?

Well, that was her husband’s successful game plan. It also matches the Democratic playbook that former Bill Clinton and Obama economic adviser Larry Summers has been pushing (e.g. raise minimum wage, bolster unions, increase infrastructure spending, create a “more progressive” tax code). Is this tax and spend liberalism? Yes, but with slick packaging and lots of soothing words. After all who could be against “raising middle class incomes”?

Republicans had better be prepared not only with a candidate who is more accessible than Hillary Clinton but with an agenda that is not rewarmed solutions from the past (e.g. lowering marginal tax rates, shrinking government). There are plenty of conservative ideas out there, but it will require some unconventional thinking and understanding that the average voter will not thrill to the idea that Warren Buffett will be paying less tax and that corporations can repatriate overseas profits. They need to know what is in it for them.

That leads to some basic guidelines for GOP presidential hopefuls:

First, pro-growth tax cuts should not be the only strategy for promoting job creation and rising incomes. Regulatory reform, opening trade markets, economically-driven legal immigration, adequately funding basic science and R&D and revamping higher education all play a roll.

Second, reductions in the top marginal tax rate cannot result in a less progressive tax system or in gallons of new red ink. That’s a challenge (which is one reason tax reform cannot be the end all and be all of a growth policy) and it may mean a top marginal rate that is lower than it is now, but still higher than what many Republicans have suggested. And it means the child tax credit and earned income tax credit aimed at letting middle-class and poor Americans increase their take home pay are critical. Yes, we cannot forget about the investment side (expensing of capital improvements, a territorial tax system, lower rates in exchange for closing loopholes) but if Republicans think they are going to get away with proposing a flat tax that shifts the burden to the middle class and busts a hole in the budget, they need to think about how that will be portrayed in a general election context. (And sorry, Buffett will have to pay something on his capital gains profits.)

Third, it means, as we have discussed before, less focus on cutting discretionary spending and more focus on making entitlement benefits “progressive,” that is the rich get somewhat less (although still more than they put it) and the excess is used for a down payment on the debt and/or items with impact on the economy as a whole (infrastructure).

Fourth, it means K-12 reform must be more than school choice and getting rid of the Education Department. The vast majority of kids are and will continue to be in public schools and those need attention.

Fifth, no candidate can get away with promising to repeal Obamacare  without a free-market alternative that costs less and gives Americans greater choice.

I fear that Republicans, seeing Clinton’s liabilities, will assume they don’t need an agenda that competes for middle-class voters and will simply revert to a tax model from the 1980s. Well, the top marginal tax rate is not starting at 70 percent, and we know that even with economic growth there is more to be done to promote upward mobility. All of this will seem like heresy in some quarters, but that conservative orthodoxy is badly in need of an update and some cold, hard political calculation. You can’t apply your policies if you don’t win. And Republicans won’t win by recycling the same message that earned the moniker the “party of the rich.” Yes, even Clinton can beat a nominee of that Republican Party.