Now that we know the GOP didn't have enough members willing to stand up to insurance companies and other special interests in the Obamacare repeal effort, who can possibly expect them to hold up under the extreme scrutiny they'll face when the tax plan becomes more of a top story? A key part of that scrutiny will focus on what the middle class will and won't get out of it.
The Trump administration tax plan unveiled in April calls for individual tax brackets of 35 percent, 25 percent and 10 percent. It promotes a 15 percent tax rate for both corporations and small businesses known as "pass-throughs," whose income is taxed through the individual tax code on their owners' personal returns.
On Tuesday, President Trump made a bit of an amendment to that by saying in a Wall Street Journal interview:
"The people I care most about are the middle-income people in this country, who have gotten screwed. And if there's upward revision it's going to be on high-income people."
The problem with that promise is that the middle class is already not paying much of the total federal tax burden as it is. For example, in 2013, (the most recent year where we have a full Congressional Budget Office report), the middle quintile— those people making 10 percent above and 10 percent below the mean household income of $69,700 —paid only 4 percent of all federal income taxes. It's the rich, like the top 10 percent of income earners, who pay 71 percent of the federal income taxes. (To be clear, we're only talking about federal income taxes.) There really can't be any significant federal tax cutting plan without benefiting them the most. Real middle class tax relief can really only come from property tax and state income tax cuts.
From a public relations perspective, that's the tough trick. The Democrats have made cries of "The Republicans just want to give tax breaks to their billionaire friends!" more than just a mantra for more than 30 years. And it has an impact that many Republicans haven't shown the stomach for that criticism once it inevitably takes hold in the general news media. President George W. Bush and the Republican Congress working under him from 2001-2006 proved that with half measures like temporary individual tax rate cuts and one brief corporate tax holiday. Efforts to make those cuts permanent and more substantial wilted under Democrat opposition and media scrutiny despite Republican majorities in Congress at the time.
And President Trump is now doing what a lot of Republicans have been doing for years, which is pre-emptively and publicly weakening his message by negotiating against himself with promises like the one he made on Tuesday in that Wall Street Journal interview. Some could see that statement about the middle class getting "screwed" as a strong stance from the president, but based on the GOP history it really sounds like Mr. Trump is already scared of the backlash his tax cut plan is likely to get when it finally becomes the top story.
If President Trump and the Republicans really believe that lower taxes will grow the economy and help people at every income level, they're going to have to be able to stomach the backlash over big tax cuts and make a clear case to the American people for those cuts. In other words, they're going to have to effectively preach their own long-held beliefs.
You'll have to pardon me if I'm pessimistic about the chances of that happening —especially since the last Republican to do that effectively was Ronald Reagan more than 30 years ago. President Trump wasn't able to promote the Obamacare repeal effort convincingly, and he doesn't seem like he'll be much better on taxes.