WHEN DONALD Trump promised a specific, deficit-neutral, progressive tax plan, we have to admit to some anxiety. What if this poisonous candidate, who rode to the top of the field with hateful speech about Mexicans, women and others, did something admirable? Would we have to praise him?
Turns out, we needn’t have lost any sleep. Mr. Trump, the GOP presidential front-runner, proved once again that he’s all talk. His tax plan, far from being a courageous departure from Republican orthodoxy, relies on many familiar Republican tricks to justify massive tax cuts in an age in which the government’s burdens are increasing, not shrinking — and with even less than usual honest arithmetic.
Mr. Trump would eliminate income taxes on married couples’ first $50,000 of income and consolidate the current seven tax brackets into four. He would cut the top income tax rate from 39.6 percent to 25 percent. Not even Jeb Bush proposed slashing the top rate that far. Mr. Trump would drop the corporate tax rate to 15 percent from 39.1 percent, again lower than where Mr. Bush would go. Like Mr. Bush, Mr. Trump would eliminate the estate tax, a move that would benefit only the wealthy, as the federal government taxes only high-value estates.
Mr. Trump claims his plan wouldn’t starve the treasury of any revenue. That seems impossible. He claims he would do more to phase out income tax deductions for the rich and super rich, but he doesn’t provide nearly enough specific details, and he exempts from reform the mortgage interest tax deduction — a $70-billion-per-year tax break that overwhelmingly benefits the wealthy. Similarly, he claims he would limit corporate deductions, but, with a couple of exceptions, he doesn’t say which ones or by how much. The New York Times’s Josh Barro calculates that the rich do not claim anywhere close to enough in deductions to offset the trillions in tax cuts Mr. Trump is proposing. Another source of revenue — mandatory repatriation of income U.S. companies have earned overseas — is one-time-only.
In an address announcing his plan, it seemed as though Mr. Trump’s real strategy for avoiding a massive hole in the budget is wishful thinking. Mr. Trump touted the economic growth his administration would spur, and he fell back on the hoary promise to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse. Wishful thinking was a major component of Mr. Bush’s plan, too, but the former Florida governor was at least more specific about how he’d cap deductions for the wealthy, and he admitted that his plan would decrease revenue.
What’s remarkable about Mr. Trump’s plan is not how different it is from what other Republicans favor, but how similar it is in its fudges, excuses and pandering. With an aging population, rising health-care costs and crude spending caps threatening the country’s budget picture, the next president must strike a bipartisan deal that eliminates tax loopholes, raises revenue, invests in research and infrastructure and reforms entitlements so that they will be available to people who depend on them. So far, no one in the race has offered a realistic plan to do that. Mr. Trump, we’re relieved to say, hasn’t broken the mold.