Magazine June 1, 2015, Issue

A 2016 Policy Preview

Taking a look at the GOP hopefuls’ nascent agendas

It would be an overstatement to say that the Republican presidential candidates are debating one another’s policy ideas. Very few of the candidates have put forward extensive policy agendas. Several of the candidates have not yet formally announced that they are even running. We are, however, beginning to get a slightly clearer picture of where the candidates will stand, and where they might fight.

Immigration seems as though it should be a dividing line — the party truly has deep differences of opinion on it — but so far that line is not clear. All of the candidates appear to be open to providing legal status to illegal immigrants eventually, if certain conditions are met: if, for example, the border is secured and the illegal immigrants pay a fine first.

Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are also open to providing citizenship to illegal immigrants. The distinction between legal status and citizenship sometimes occasions debate, but it may not lead to a robust one in the primaries for the simple reason that not many Republicans appear to care about it. An AP/GfK poll in May found that public support for legal status runs about even with public support for citizenship.

Legal immigration could also generate conflict. Rick Santorum wants to reduce it by 25 percent. Scott Walker has said that legal-immigration policy should be set with an eye on American wages and that he is listening to restrictionist senator Jeff Sessions. Those comments were enough to draw charges that he is against legal immigrants, but Walker has not explicitly said that he thinks their number should fall. A real debate could begin if Walker does say that, if Santorum rises, or if the candidates take clearly opposed positions on when legal status should be offered.

Rand Paul’s presence in the race was supposed to guarantee a heated debate about foreign policy, but the libertarian has been steadily shrinking the distance between himself and the rest of the field. He recently signed a letter from nearly all the Republican senators warning the Iranian government that any deal with President Obama might not survive into the next U.S. administration, and sponsored an amendment to increase defense spending. Some traces of heterodoxy remain, though. Paul cheered Obama for moving to lift the Cuban embargo, taking shots at Rubio on the issue. Bush, Chris Christie, and Ted Cruz also favor the embargo.

A few of the candidates have staked out opposing positions on criminal justice and civil liberties. Bush, Christie, and Rubio are strong supporters of the National Security Agency’s surveillance of telephone-call information, while Cruz and Paul are critics. Cruz, Paul, Rick Perry, and to a lesser degree Bush want to reduce our reliance on mass incarceration, and Paul in particular wants a less punitive approach to illegal drugs. Christie and Rubio, on the other hand, believe in the drug war.

Almost all of the Republican candidates support free trade and reforms to reduce the growth of entitlement spending. Mike Huckabee breaks from the consensus on both points. While most economists believe that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is likely to boost the economy, Huckabee fears that the agreement would cause U.S. workers to “take it in the backside.”

Bush, Christie, and Rubio have come out for raising the retirement age. Christie also believes Social Security benefits should be cut for senior citizens who make more than $80,000. Rubio has suggested that we should “reduce the growth of benefits for upper-income seniors.” The senators in the race have voted to shift Medicare to a “premium support” model that seeks to use consumer choice to save money. Huckabee, on the other hand, condemns such proposals as acts of theft against senior citizens who spent their working lives contributing to the program.

Not every reform proposal seems well considered. Christie’s would penalize seniors for working and having savings. Huckabee’s opposition to reform, on the other hand, is either ignorant or demagogic. Contrary to what he suggests, the currently retired are getting much more from entitlements than they contributed, and most reform proposals hold them harmless anyway. There is no doubt, however, that he speaks for many Republican voters on these issues: They are far less uniformly supportive of entitlement reform than their candidates have been.

Tax reform is a traditional interest of Republican candidates. The Republicans who ran in 2012 had light platforms, but even most of them had tax plans. The two most developed plans in the current field belong to Rubio and Huckabee. Rubio would reduce income-tax rates, abolish taxes on capital, get rid of the alternative minimum tax, cut taxes on businesses of all kinds, and expand the tax credit for children.

It is a pro-growth reform that offers a lot of tax relief to middle-class families, but it has political vulnerabilities. While the senator justifies expanding the child credit on the ground that the burdens of the welfare state fall particularly hard on families, some conservatives say it’s a special-interest tax break. The plan would also reduce revenue over the next decade by roughly 10 percent, if you assume it would not boost growth. And the reform would raise tax bills for some people: Affluent childless people in high-tax states, for example, would pay more.

Huckabee favors the “FairTax,” a national sales tax that would replace the income and payroll taxes. Under the FairTax, the federal government would get $30 for every sale that makes $100 for the vendor; the consumer would pay $130. This idea has dedicated fans, but it is a big new tax. And senior citizens who have paid income and payroll taxes their whole lives would have to pay this new tax as they spent what they have left.

Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson say they favor a flat tax, but have not yet produced any details. If they chose a rate that raises the same amount of revenue as the current tax code, they would be proposing a tax increase on many lower-income and middle-income households. They could avoid that problem by setting a lower rate, but then they would be widening the deficit. The flat tax would also have to eliminate a lot of tax breaks. Some of them, especially the deductions for charitable giving and mortgage-interest payments, have a lot of political support.

Christie has a vague outline of a plan, too. He says he would reduce the number of tax brackets to three, make the top income-tax rate 28 percent at most, cut the bottom rate, reduce tax breaks other than those for charities and most mortgages, and cut payroll taxes for senior citizens and young people. He promises to keep the deficit from rising as a result of these changes; it will be a tall order.

Rubio and Bobby Jindal have proposed plans to replace Obamacare. Both of them would get rid of not only that law but also of a federal policy that has been in place for decades. The tax code has long encouraged people to get health insurance through their employers rather than purchasing it themselves. The plans of Rubio and Jindal would create a level playing field between the two types of insurance arrangements. The main difference between the plans is that they make a different trade-off between cost and coverage. Rubio would enable more people to get health insurance and thus avoid the charge that replacing Obamacare means taking away people’s coverage. Jindal would cover many fewer people but create more room for reductions in tax rates.

Education is another issue where Rubio and Jindal stand alone. Jindal is the only candidate with a plan for K–12 education: He is an enthusiast for school choice, which he has fought for as governor of Louisiana. Rubio has promoted several proposals to make higher education more affordable, such as letting investors finance college in return for a share of students’ future income.

Rubio has the most detailed and wide-ranging policy agenda, followed by Jindal. At this early stage of the campaign, most candidates don’t have either a health-care plan or a tax-reform plan. The proposals we have show us how some of the candidates will use policy proposals in their campaigns. Huckabee will present himself as the champion of the working class and the elderly, or at least of the white Evangelicals among them. Rubio and Jindal will be the ideas men. Whether other candidates want to stake their claim to that label remains to be seen.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

In This Issue

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Politics & Policy

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