The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses won’t matter unless the GOP exploits them

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Hillary Clinton was criticized by a number of mainstream outlets for a speech yesterday light on substance and, in its anti-Wall Street rhetoric, disingenuous coming from someone who has gotten rich off the same Wall Street moneymen she now decries. All that won’t matter to the electorate, however, if the GOP nominee does not seize the opening. Here’s how to do that:

Most important, a GOP tax reform plan cannot amount to an effort to shoehorn the current code and economy into a Reagan-era plan. It’s going to be near-impossible to come up with a tax plan that revives a 28 percent top bracket without sticking it to non-rich taxpayers and/or blowing a hole in the budget. If Republicans try to match that up with draconian cuts to popular government programs, they set themselves up to be painted as heartless. They will not beat a Clinton appeal for the rich to “pay just a little more” with a pie-in-the-sky plan that does not benefit lower- and middle-class Americans.

In addition, no candidate can get away with promising to repeal Obamacare without explaining what he or she will put in its place. The rationale for the alternative must be directed to people who are hurt by or not helped by Obamacare. That means the alternative must deliver on the “affordable” part of the Affordable Care Act and restore greater choice to consumers. Ideally, the case should be made that consigning the poor to unreformed Medicaid is tantamount to saying the poor will get inferior care.

Next, in lieu of a minimum-wage hike, the GOP candidate should offer something that might actually work and not eliminate entry-level jobs. James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute quotes a new study finding “a $1000 policy-induced increase in the [Earned Income Tax Credit] EITC leads to a 7.3 percentage point increase in employment and a 9.4 percentage point reduction in the share of families with after-tax and transfer income below 100% poverty. . . .  The increase in after tax incomes from the EITC may be the largest for this group – single women with children – given their well-documented large extensive margin labor supply response to this policy.”

Republicans will need to win the education-for-the-21st-century issue. A sure way to start is to make the case that you cannot be in the pocket of the teachers unions and be for real school reform. The aspects of school reform that are essential — the right to fire bad teachers regardless of seniority, school choice, holding teachers accountable for outcomes, maximizing resources in the classroom, etc. — cannot be accomplished without running around (and if need be, over) teachers unions. Republicans should be supportive of good teachers (not unions), but mostly for students whose quality is adversely affected by unions’ sacred cows. Moreover, it’s time to take on higher ed’s outrageous pricing, as well as lagging graduation and retention rates. Yes, disclosure is well and good, but there is more to be done. Why are colleges with billion-dollar reserves tax-exempt? Is there price collusion among higher ed institutions? There is no surer way to win the hearts of middle-class parents than to get tough with price-gouging institutions. In short, Republicans need to treat university presidents the way Democrats treat oil company CEOs — with suspicion and the tenacity to shame them publicly.

There are many other helpful issues for Republicans to champion (e.g. Dodd-Frank’s destruction of community banking, efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency to put coal companies out of business), but they will need to offer alternatives that are appealing. No, it’s not enough to argue that Clinton is selling snake oil. She is, but that’s insufficient to win voters’ trust.

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