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Rick Scott thrusts the GOP back into Romney-‘47 percent’ territory

From left, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) listen as Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) speaks during a news conference in October. (Stefani Reynolds for The Washington Post)
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For a few years now, the leaders of the Republican Party have pretty steadfastly avoided outlining anything amounting to an actual party agenda. The 2020 Republican platform was merely a (somewhat awkward) repeat of its 2016 document, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has pointedly declined to state in advance what he would do with a Senate majority after the 2022 election. “I’ll let you know when we take it back,” McConnell has said.

The posture certainly reinforces that the GOP has come to be defined more by one man (Donald Trump) and his accompanying political ethos than by a consistent set of ideals. But it also serves a rather evident purpose: to avoid pinning the party down on specifics that might become liabilities at some point — particularly as its principles have shifted markedly in recent years.

All of which Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) has now reinforced.

Scott, the head of Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, has responded to McConnell’s lack of an agenda with an agenda of his own. While stressing that it’s his own product and not affiliated with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Scott is a GOP leader and a potential future presidential candidate. Thus, it carries some weight.

And while many have focused on what the agenda says about culture-war issues such as transgender rights, one of the most striking and evocative parts is what it says about taxes. The 11-point plan calls for new taxes on tens of millions of Americans, by rekindling the same issue that led Mitt Romney to stumble into his “47 percent” gaffe.

“All Americans should pay some income tax to have skin in the game, even if a small amount,” the plan says. “Currently over half of Americans pay no income tax.”

The language of the plan itself effectively acknowledges it’s advocating for an income tax increase on “over half of Americans” — a group of people that is overwhelmingly lower-income. And in fact, the number of Americans to whom this would apply has climbed during the pandemic.

Update: Scott on Tuesday night denied his plan advocating a new income tax on more than half the country would actually raise taxes on more than half the country. On Fox News, Sean Hannity said Democrats were saying “your plan is to raise taxes on more than half of Americans.” Scott responded, “Of course not. ... Oh, no, no.” Hannity did not press him to detail his denial.

While Romney overly simplistically referred to 47 percent of people who both paid no income tax and voted for Democrats because of it, the number who paid no income tax was indeed around half. In 2020, though, that number climbed as high as 61 percent, according to the Tax Foundation.

You begin to see the potential political problem here. Scott’s document doesn’t discuss the issue in as ham-handed a way as Romney did in that infamous video — though suggesting those who don’t pay income taxes don’t have “skin in the game” is certainly dicey. But it does advocate for raising taxes on, in the Tax Foundation’s estimate, as many as 75 million people who paid no such taxes after deductions and credits in 2020. If you include the 32 million who didn’t file returns, such as retirees, the number climbs well over 100 million Americans. (Scott’s plan isn’t explicit on whether his idea would include such people, but it does say “all Americans.”)

The political ads almost write themselves: The leader of the effort to elect a Senate majority wants to use that to raise taxes on as much as half of the country, however modestly. The GOP has for years defined virtually any new tax as a tax increase, and this meets that definition.

The move is also particularly interesting because it’s far out of step with how at least one prominent Republican tackled this issue during the Trump era. As NBC’s Benjy Sarlin wrote a year ago, Trump effectively said people not having to pay income taxes was something to be celebrated. He proposed codifying a zero percent income tax rate for those making $25,000 per year individually or $50,000 as a married couple — rather than those people merely getting to zero through deductions. He even floated sending those people tax returns that stated, “I win.” Trump proudly projected his plan would increase the number of Americans who didn’t pay income tax to 75 million.

Precisely why this was included in Scott’s agenda is an interesting question — both given how it contrasts with Trump’s tax vision and because of the headaches it could cause the party. For now, though, much like Romney’s 47 percent comment, it’s going to force some measure of accounting. That would start, it would seem, with McConnell and the candidates whose election to the Senate Scott is in charge of leading.

At the very least, it would seem a good opportunity to start talking about what the GOP would actually do with that Senate majority.