Let’s imagine you were a Democratic president who just lost control of Congress to the Republicans, and you wanted to make it really, really clear that you are not serious about governing. What would you do? Simple: Use your State of the Union address to propose hundreds of billions of dollars in new taxes that will never be enacted, in order to fund a slew of new government programs that have no chance of being approved.
Welcome to President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address.
On Tuesday night, Obama will ask the new Republican Congress to approve $320 billion in tax increases. To see how absurd this is, imagine for a moment what the reaction would have been if, after losing control of Congress to the Democrats in 2006, President George W. Bush had used his next State of the Union address to propose $320 billion in growth-oriented tax cuts. Would anyone have taken him seriously? The media would have dismissed Bush as delusional. Democrats would have laughed. Everyone would have asked: What’s wrong with him? Didn’t he get the message of the 2006 midterms? What planet is he on?
Obama is not delusional. He knows his plan has no chance of becoming law. White House officials, according to Politico, “aren’t holding their breath that Obama’s new proposals will pass Congress now that Republicans control both chambers.” (Which raises the question why, if Obama were serious, didn’t he propose them when Democrats controlled both chambers?) The goal is for “Obama to position himself as a defender of the middle class” and put Republicans in the “politically awkward” position of resisting tax increases on the rich to pay for programs that benefit the middle class.
In other words, Obama’s move is completely and transparently political. He knows Republicans have been working to shed their image as the party of the rich and powerful, with a new focus on helping the poor and the working class. He wants to taunt the GOP into attacking his plan so he can accuse Republicans of fighting for the wealthy. Indeed, within hours of the White House announcement of Obama’s plan, his former speechwriter Jon Favreau tweeted: “I see Obama’s tax plan has already baited Republicans into making the argument that most annoys people about their party.” That is the objective — to bait Republicans.
So what should the GOP do? Not take the bait. Not argue the merits of Obama’s plan. Ignore it and pass proposals of their own to help lower- and middle-income families. The president gets his one night at the rostrum of the House of Representatives to make his case, but Republicans control the House and Senate. They should move forward with serious plans to help those who are struggling in the Obama recovery that do not involve massive new taxes or massive new spending — and then dare Obama and the Democrats to oppose them.
There are plenty of innovative proposals to choose from. Last July, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — now the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee — laid out serious anti-poverty initiatives, including “opportunity grants” that would allow states to test different ways of fighting poverty and an expansion of the earned-income tax credit for childless workers, paid for by eliminating ineffective programs and corporate welfare. Other good ideas include my American Enterprise Institute colleague Michael Strain’s proposals to create relocation vouchers for the long-term unemployed, which would help those in high-unemployment areas move to states where jobs are abundant, as well as a lower minimum wage that would encourage firms to hire the long-term unemployed while supplementing their income with an EITC-like payment. In the Senate, Mike Lee (R-Utah) has put forward proposals of his own that include criminal justice reform, education reform and policies to strengthen families. For his part, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is out with a new book brimming with ideas for a conservative effort to restore the American Dream.
Obama’s political ploy only works if the right treats it seriously. Republicans should ignore his plan and move forward with their own proposals to help Americans who are struggling. If Obama wants to act like a lame duck, the GOP should treat him like one.