Plenty of presidential rhetoric is forgettable, and President Trump's speech on tax reform may be forgotten by next week. By offering few specifics about what a reform package needed to include, Trump left analysts with little to talk about. (“A broad-brush opening pitch” was the Wall Street Journal's diplomatic description.) By plowing ahead with the speech despite the news coming out of the Gulf Coast, Trump saw himself relegated to half the screen on Fox News and MSNBC; CNN didn't even cover his speech live.
The most interesting aspect of the speech, in fact, might be how little attention was paid to describing how tax cuts could benefit most taxpayers. For all the run-up talk about how Trump was pivoting back to “populism,” and how he would describe reform as a way to “un-rig”* the economy, Trump said less about gains for average taxpayers than George W. Bush did when he successfully sold his 2001 tax cuts.
It's worth contrasting the two approaches — one of which, obviously, paid off. Today, Trump spent just 248 words discussing “tax relief for middle class families.” He did so with very few details, and with digressions about his daughter, Ivanka, and about his campaign baseball cap.
The third principle for tax reform is a crucial one: tax relief for middle-class families. In a way — and I've been saying this for a long time — they've been, sort of, the forgotten people. But they're not forgotten any longer, I can tell you that. We will lower taxes for middle-income Americans so they can keep more of their hard-earned paychecks. And they can do lots of things with those paychecks. And that really means buying product — ideally made in this country.
But that means they'll go out and they'll spend their money. And it will be a beautiful thing to watch. This includes helping parents afford child care and the cost of raising a family. That's so important to Ivanka Trump. Very, very important to everybody in this room, but so important to my daughter. It's one of her real big beliefs and she's very committed to that. Right, Ivanka?
We believe that ordinary Americans know better than Washington how to spend their own money and we want to help them take home as much of their money as possible and then spend it. So they'll keep their money, they'll spend their money, they'll buy our products, our factories will be moving again, companies are going to move back into our country, jobs are going to prosper, and our country is going to be just like it says on that beautiful red hat. It says “Make America Great Again.” That's what we're going to do.
Even if you were listening closely, it was completely unclear what “middle-class families” were going to get. Helping them afford child-care, for example, would mean helping them defray costs that run families thousands of dollars every month. (In Washington, the average family with child care pays around $2,500 monthly.) Would they be getting hundreds of dollars back? Thousands? Who can say!
Compare this with the aggressive sales pitch that George W. Bush used to pitch his first round of tax cuts. In his first address to Congress, Bush told several stories to describe the most needful beneficiaries of tax cuts — the working class.
A typical family with two children will save $1,600 a year on their federal income taxes. Now, $1,600 may not sound like a lot to some, but it means a lot to many families: $1,600 buys gas for two cars for an entire year; it pays tuition for a year at a community college; it pays the average family grocery bill for three months. That's real money.
Anyone who covered the tax cut debate could point out some flimflam here. What's a “typical family?” How much is the average cut distorted by the cuts for higher earners? Bush tucked that information inside a couple of memorable examples — the cost of gas and tuition.
Bush went on to describe a hokey, but effective, appeal for help from two voters from the important swing state of Pennsylvania. Again, there was a concise story about how much money they'd save.
Steven and Josefina tell me they pay almost $8,000 a year in federal income taxes. My plan will save them more than $2,000. Let me tell you what Steven says: “Two thousand dollars a year means a lot to my family. If we had this money, it would help us reach our goal of paying off our personal debt in 2 years' time.” After that, Steven and Josefina want to start saving for Lianna's college education.
Again, there was a personal story — even a quote — about how much people would benefit from tax cuts. Bush did this all the time. The month after the joint address, he gave a speech in Michigan that dealt specifically with the debt "25 million families” were carrying, and how tax cuts could help them.
About 25 million families are carrying more than $10,000 in credit-card debt. Many families have tried to reduce their debt by tapping into their home equity and, partly as a result, the average homeowner's equity share in his or her house declined in the 1990s. More than a few consumers counted on their earnings in the stock market to help them carry their obligations. They need tax relief fast. In fact, they need it yesterday. So I strongly support the idea of backdating tax relief to get cash into the consumers' hands as swiftly as possible.
It's fair to point out that talking about givebacks to millions of people is not necessarily “populism.” The definition of populism is spongy; Trump frequently gave 2016 campaign speeches that were short on details, or larded with false numbers, that could fit under the “populism” rubric. It would also be fair to say that, while Trump won a smaller share of the popular vote than Bush ever did, hundreds of thousands of voters in key Rust Belt states who'd rarely voted for a Republican went for Trump, which should say something about his version of populism. (By midwinter, all of these voters will have been profiled for “Trump country” stories.)
But let's not overthink it. Trump is making virtually no effort to describe why tax reform would benefit most people because his language too closely resembles the least-populist rhetoric on the planet — the punditry about taxes seen on cable news and channels like CNBC. On those networks, there is relatively little said about the interactions of average workers with the tax code. The problems stunting American growth are all identified as the problems large businesses care about — high corporate taxes, consumer regulations, and so on. The goal of economic policy is defined as creating the fastest growth rate possible, which ipso facto will lead to better jobs and higher wages. The Trump spin on this is that previous tax policies let companies rip jobs away from people, and “America first” policies will bring them back.
That's an argument, but it's not really populism. The closest Trump got to populism was his line that eliminating “loopholes” meant he was speaking against myself,” willing to support tax reform that made people like him pay more to the government. But he wasn't specific about what loopholes he'd be willing to close, and the ones discussed most frequently, like deductions on state and local taxes, would hurt upper-middle-class New Yorkers more than they'd hurt the New Yorker in the White house.
Specifics matter. Specifics help convince voters that they'll like a plan, ignore a plan, or oppose it. So far, the Trump sales pitch, and the associated ads and focus groups by pro-reform groups, seem to be repeating the mistake of “TrumpCare.” You can frame a message that polls generically well, but at some point, people need to know how much a new policy will cost them. When people learned how much premiums might increase, they turned on “TrumpCare.” In 2001, when people learned how much money they'd get from tax cuts, they narrowly supported them.
*Trump never used any formulation of the “un-rigging” idea, which has been part of the Koch organizations' framing for tax reform.