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Steve Mnuchin is the wrong guy to sell tax reform

  • Treasury Secretary Mnuchin is the wrong guy to be selling tax reform to the public.
  • The best man for the job, despite all his faults, is still President Trump.
  • Trump needs to put the fear of losing the mid-term election into the hearts of GOP politicians to wrangle their votes.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin
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Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has an impressive resume. He's been a successful investment banker, hedge fund founder, and even a Hollywood film producer.

But as a salesman for a national tax reform policy, he's simply not cutting it.

Perhaps the best example of how Mnuchin is falling short on that job came Wednesday morning when he warned in an interview with Politico that the stock market would tank if Congress doesn't pass tax reform:

"To the extent we get the tax deal done, the stock market will go up higher. But there's no question in my mind that if we don't get it done you're going to see a reversal of a significant amount of these gains."

When salesmen use scare tactics like that, you know they're just not that good.

Besides, Mnuchin's claims about the stock rally are far from accepted by a lot of key market experts. For example, prominent stock bull Jeremy Siegel believes the gains have a lot more to do with growing global economic growth and corporate profits.

But if scare tactics are the weapon of choice, the pro-tax reform forces could do a lot better by focusing on what the people who will vote on the tax reform bill fear the most: Losing elections.

So how can the Trump team use that re-election fear factor to make tax reform a reality?

Former White House adviser Steve Bannon has been launching campaigns to oust Republican incumbents in Congress in the months since he left the Trump team. One key Republican in the Senate, Lindsay Graham, thinks Bannon is using those challenges against his GOP colleagues as a prod to get tax reform done. Graham even told The Hill that "there's one antidote to Bannon: success," on the tax bill.

The White House should start with those congressional Republicans and remind them that they're doing worse in the polls than even President Trump is right now. Time is running out for them to prove they can pass a major bill. In addition to that pressure, President Trump may want to use the tried and true tools most of his predecessors have used when trying to twist arms: Federal programs. A pork barrel project or two can go a long way and it would add a carrot to the usual Trump stick of threatening tweets or comments at rallies.

On the other side of the aisle President Trump has been reaching out to vulnerable red state Democrats like Senators Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Donnelly trying to rally their support on tax reform. He could follow that up with promises not to campaign against any incumbent from either party who votes for the plan. Given his lack of real GOP party loyalty, he could even campaign for a Democrat or two who votes for the eventual bill. So far, the Democrats are vowing to not vote for any tax bill that helps the rich, but the president has nothing to lose by testing that vow as much as possible. Heitkamp and Donnelly come from states that went clearly for President Trump in November. So the question is will they choose party loyalty over employment?

And that brings us to who really is the best possible salesperson for the job: President Trump.

For all his polarizing characteristics and lousy approval ratings, President Trump still has the nation's undivided attention in an unprecedented way. The added scrutiny puts him in a position to wield tremendous power on this and all issues. He just needs to hone it better for the best results.

But he also needs to be more of a deal maker than just a guy pounding the bully pulpit. He has the opportunity to offer some form of federal funding for certain states and districts so on-the-fence senators and representatives get the chance to tell the voters how they brought home the bacon just before election time. He can nominate people close to those senators and representatives to key federal jobs or judicial seats. Even if Mnuchin or Bannon were the best and most persuasive speakers out there, these are powers only President Trump truly has at his disposal.

So the question is: Will President Trump use all the public and private persuasive weapons in his arsenal to get tax reform passed, or will he allow the wrong people like Steven Mnuchin carry the ball for him? The longer the president waits to take the reins in this fight, the worse his chances of success will be.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.