Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Left, right and center.

According to a Monmouth University poll released this week, Bernie Sanders leads Hillary Clinton 43% to 36% among likely New Hampshire voters. Up until now, Sanders has not been taken seriously by most observers in the media. The man is a socialist and this is America, after all. Even as Sanders surged past the presumptive Democratic Party nominee in the polls in the first primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, political observers have continued to view the erosion in Hillary's support as an indicator that there is an opportunity for Joe Biden. Sanders is simply not taken seriously.

It is the word. Socialist. Commentators are quick to suggest that Sanders is not taken seriously because he is so far outside what is labeled as the consensus mainstream of American politics. Yet that is not true. Rather, it is the positions of the political parties that have shifted.

Over the past several decades, the entire political spectrum has shifted to the right. Thus, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and others who would have been viewed as being on the extremes of the political spectrum a few decades ago are easily within the mainstream of the Republican Party today. On the other hand--particularly since the Clinton administration--the Democratic Party has migrated toward the center. Elizabeth Warren, whose views would have been well within the mainstream of the Democratic Party in the pre-Clinton years now is viewed as a radical of sorts.

Just because Bernie Sanders is on the left fringe of the two main political parties today, that does not place him on the fringe of American political thought. His main policy positions--for which he was excoriated on the pages of the Wall Street Journal this week--are more neo-Roosevelt than neo-Marxist. National health insurance, Social Security, rebuilding infrastructure, and low cost tuition at public universities sound remarkably like the political platforms of Dwight Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller and Richard Nixon, but today clearly are outside the accepted range of political debate.

Bernie Sanders' speech at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia this week may have woken some people up. It was an impressive performance on several levels. First, for the political maturity and respect he showed in speaking before a large evangelical Christian audience that he knew would not be supportive of many of his views, and second for the passion and clarity of the delivery. Sanders acknowledged areas of disagreement at the outset--views on abortion and gay marriage--and then framed the challenges of social justice, poverty and income inequality as moral imperatives common to Jews, Protestants and Catholics. While a Jewish politician speaking before an evangelical Christian audience may seem like an odd precursor to the visit of Pope Francis to Congress next week, Sanders' focus on issues of social justice and poverty mirrors many of the themes that the Pope has continued to address. In the Republican dominated Congress next week, Pope Francis will confront the mirror opposite audience--members who support the Church's opposition to abortion and gay marriage, but who oppose both his weakening of Church doctrine on those issues and his embrace of issues of social justice, poverty and income inequality.

The same day that Bernie Sanders spoke in front of 12,000 people in Virginia, Donald Trump was speaking to a gathering perhaps twice that size in Dallas. Unlike Sanders, Trump is always speaking to an adoring crowd these days. But like Sanders, his message is increasingly shaking up traditionalists within his party. Sanders and Trump are suggesting a melding of left and right on issues of economic, financial and tax policy that is frightening many on both sides of the aisle. Both Sanders and Trump argue for changes to the income tax that would increase the tax burden on the wealthy. Both Sanders and Trump describe the economic status quo as a rigged system that benefits a small group at the top to the detriment of the large middle class. Both Sanders and Trump embrace economic reforms that would punish the outsourcing of jobs. These positions are traditional fare for the socialist Sanders, yet are ones that have lost favor in all but rhetorical terms in the Democratic Party over the past two decades. Trump's castigation of a rigged system that benefits the wealthy, calling for increased taxes on the rich and the elimination of the special tax treatment afforded to hedge fund and other asset managers, and suggesting in his Dallas speech a 35% tariff on imported manufactured goods, all place him far outside the mainstream of the present-day GOP. Like Sanders, Trump's rhetoric is not as far outside of his party's tradition as some like to think. Trump's rhetoric in many respects mirrors the presidential campaign of Pat Buchanan in 1996, whose "peasants with pitchforks" insurgency assaulted GOP policies that served the interests of corporate and financial elites to the detriment of the middle class. 

Last week, Jeb Bush released his own tax reform plan. The Bush plan is a version of traditional Republican tax policy in the post-Reagan era, reflecting reductions in nominal tax rates across the board and a narrowing of deductions. The impact of Trump's rhetoric and increased focus on the issue of income inequality were reflected in the Bush plan by the elimination of the carried interest provision and increases in the earned income tax credit.

While supporters heralded Bush's elimination of the carried interest provision and increases in the earned income tax credit, the bottom line of the Bush plan is that it would deliver an estimated 53% of the estimated $3.6 trillion in tax reductions over ten years to the top 1%. Six months after giving a policy speech that decried an economic situation where "only a small portion of the population is riding the economy’s up escalator," Bush produced a tax reform plan that provides an estimated $82,000 tax cut to the wealthiest taxpayers, while the annual savings to the other 99% of taxpayers would range from $500 to $1,500.

The timing and substance of the Bush proposal were startling. As the standard bearer for the political center, and still in the eyes of many the presumptive nominee, Bush continues to demonstrate a tin ear. Several months ago, he stumbled badly on questions about the Iraq war and Iraq policy going forward. Now, he chose to publish a tax reform plan that did little but further demonstrate his inability to read the mood of the electorate whose support he is seeking. Even if he believed that the Republican base would ultimately embrace the kind of tax cut plan that has long been central to the Republican playbook, Bush failed to pay heed to the power of Trump's populist rhetoric and recognize that perhaps, just perhaps, this was not the moment in the campaign to launch a tax cut proposal that once again disproportionately benefits the wealthiest Americans. 

For years, there have been issues where the left and the right were in alignment. Concern over the power of Wall Street, corporate welfare, trade policy, and federal power over education policy come to mind. But the power of the center has long trumped the ability of those on the left and the right to drive public policy on those or other issues. Right now, Sanders and Trump are driving the political debate. Sanders may be a socialist, but the issues that he is raising have broad appeal and a long history of support within the Democratic Party base. In a similar manner, Trump has tapped into resentments toward corporate and financial elites that have a long history within the GOP, and those who suggest that Trump is not saying anything substantive about policy are not paying attention.

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