The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Friendly talk on tax cuts makes a Democrat the star of a Republican ad

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) speaks to reporters after  the House Democratic leadership elections on Capitol Hill on Nov. 30, 2016. (Michael Reynolds/European Pressphoto Agency)

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), whose aggressive campaigning for local and congressional Democratic candidates has drawn attention this summer, is the star of a new ad from a Republican group — one that recasts him as a supporter of tax reform.

The American Action Network’s ad, “Agree,” pounces on a moment from Ryan’s media tour where he veered away from his messaging to argue that his party had blown it on taxes. “When it comes to reforming America’s outdated tax system, top Democrats agree,” says a narrator. That queues up a portion of Ryan’s Aug. 24 answer to “Morning Joe” co-host Willie Geist.

“I think we need to simplify the tax code,” Ryan says in the ad. “I think we need to lower the corporate tax rate. We can’t just be the party of redistribution of wealth. We’ve got to be the party of creation of wealth.”

The answer doesn’t reflect the totality of Ryan’s tax thoughts. The congressman, who has represented Ohio’s struggling Mahoning Valley counties since 2003, told Geist that his party needed to figure out “how we get our arms around everything that’s going on with the economy to win those Trump voters back.” Asked whether his party had “learned the lessons” of 2016, Ryan began to ramble.

I feel like we’re taking steps in the right direction. I think having a major push on the jobs focus is really, really important, and I think that’s a good first step. But you know, we’ve got to really come strong, Willie, with saying, look, we’re the party to be able to handle the economy in the 21st century. We have the convergence of so many different elements happening right now, globalization, automation, artificial intelligence, all of these different other opportunities within the economy.
And right now I don’t think either political party has quite gotten their hands around it. And what I want the Democratic Party to be, is to be a party that can set an agenda to try to deal with those issues that will drive up wages, help people be able to afford college and health care and all the rest.
But let me be clear, I don’t think we can be hostile to business. I think, you know, while we can be for a progressive tax code, we can be for an increase in dividends and corporate — you know, other kind of business taxes, I think we need to simplify the tax code. I think we need to lower the corporate tax rate. We can’t just be the party of redistribution of wealth. We’ve got to be the party of creation of wealth. And not just in Silicon Valley and Wall Street. In Youngstown, in the south, we’ve got to create new wealth in this new economy. And I really want the Democrats to be the party that’s going to get their arms around this big issue.

In a follow-up, Ryan had one idea that is not featured in any Republican plan — “a trillion-dollar expansion of the earned income tax credit,” which would redistribute income to poorer people in hopes of increasing their quality of life and buying power. “To put $5,000, $6,000 in the working class family’s pocketbook I think would be something big and bold,” he said.

In a statement, Ryan told the Washington Post that the corporate tax issue was just “one aspect” of reform that he favored.

“I appreciate this organization wanting to highlight my desire for comprehensive tax reform that simplifies the tax code, promotes growth, creates new wealth, and closes loopholes,” Ryan said. “But let me be clear: making our corporate tax rate more globally competitive is important, but it is just one aspect of meaningful reform we need. Any debate about tax reform must balance a competitive corporate tax rate with provisions that encourage corporate responsibility through higher taxes on capital gains and dividends as well as increased capital investment in America’s workforce. We should be prioritizing provisions like a $1 trillion expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to put thousands of dollars back in the pockets of hardworking Americans, child tax credits, and increased standard deductions that poor and working families have been craving for decades.”

The irony, enabling Ryan’s accidental commercial spot, is that the sales pitch for “tax reform” has been blandly positive, with little focus on any particular reform that might wind up being passed. Before “Agree,” the main AAN buy had been behind “Laid Off,” an ad in which a blue-collar worker blames America’s “so complicated” tax code for a foreign competitor shoving his employer out of the market.

The tax debate, nonetheless, had fallen out of the headlines in a news-packed August. The AAN ad, which has a five-figure buy behind it in Ryan’s district, is unlikely to move any votes toward a Republican version of tax reform. It does, however, emphasize how unready some Democrats are to talk taxes — an issue that cuts their way politically, if the topic is cuts on tax rates that benefit the wealthiest.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), whom Ryan unsuccessfully challenged after the 2016 election, is frequently criticized by Democrats for a battered public image that, in this year’s special elections, helped Republicans eke out wins. But she’s been careful not to give an inch on the administration’s priorities. In an interview in San Francisco last week, Pelosi portrayed the year in Congress so far as a story of Democrats refusing to give in to Trump, and winning.

“We have beaten them in appropriations,” Pelosi said. “We’ve won every fight. The president’s numbers are in the high 30s, which is for a new president remarkable to be so low. He is making his own case. The American people see for themselves that he does not share their values.”