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Will The Tax Overhaul Help The Working Class?


Despite the ups and downs, it does look like President Trump will soon sign his first big piece of legislation on taxes. As we just heard, the Senate and the House are trying to reconcile their versions of the legislation. And that bill marks the next chapter in our understanding of President Trump's governing philosophy. Here's NPR's Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Once upon a time, there was a group of conservative intellectuals who were agnostic about Donald Trump. They weren't never-Trumpers, and they weren't Trump superfans either. They thought Trumpism might offer something new for the GOP, a more populist path toward the future. Conservative writer Henry Olsen looked to the tax plan to reflect this new vision. But it wasn't there.

HENRY OLSEN: Trumpian populism has not materialized. It is something that remains a tantalizing promise for people who are interested in it.

LIASSON: Olsen expected the tax plan to include some of Trump's populist campaign promises that the rich would pay more, the forgotten working class would pay less and special interest loopholes like the carried interest provision for hedge fund managers would be gone. But the tax bill, says Olsen, went in a different direction.

OLSEN: One that is much more traditionally Republican in its focus on cutting taxes for the well-to-do, barely touching the working class and not helping the middle class to a significant degree. And that's not what Trump promised, and it's not what Trump's voters thought they were getting.

LIASSON: One of Olsen's biggest disappointments was the failure of the child care tax credit. Offered by Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio, it was an actual populist idea geared to the working class, refundable against payroll taxes. But not only did the Republican leadership oppose it. They made sure it failed by requiring it to get 60 votes unlike other amendments.

The tax bill may not be the kind of populist piece of legislation Trump promised during the campaign, but it does have a lot in it to make conservatives happy - Obamacare unraveled, more tax breaks for people who send their kids to private schools and tax hikes for graduate students, university endowments and voters in high-tax states - in other words, Democrats. Conservative Joy Pullmann, managing editor of thefederalist.com, wasn't sure what to make of Trump's governing philosophy at first. Now she describes it this way.

JOY PULLMANN: It seems to me to be actually pretty classic fusion conservatism. By fusion, I mean the combination of the libertarian and the conservative but with a pair of overalls on (laughter) or maybe a red trucker hat.

LIASSON: The red trucker hat suggests another way of looking at Trumpism. Maybe the most important part of Trump isn't economic policy or any policy at all. It's his racially charged Twitter feed and the cultural grievances it directs at immigrants, Muslims and millionaire black athletes, says conservative analyst Ben Domenech.

BEN DOMENECH: Having fewer brackets - that may sound fine to voters, but what gets them riled up and active is this type of embrace of the culture war issues that Trump has shown himself perfectly happy to fight in a way that Republicans in a lot of other positions have been unwilling to traditionally.

LIASSON: There have always been two parts to the Republican Party's message - conservative social issues for its white, blue-collar evangelical base - school prayer, abortion, gay marriage, immigration, crime - and a supply side trickle-down economic message for the rich and corporations.

Trump took this two-pronged message and put it on steroids. His tax bill is even more tilted to the wealthy than the tax bills of Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, and his white identity politics is more raw and more central to his persona. Olsen doesn't think this Trumpist combination offers a viable path for the GOP, and he's not even sure it's sustainable for Trump.

OLSEN: There is a lingering discontent in the country that is much more than racial resentment. What we find in politics is that people will give their choice a long leash. But if the person doesn't deliver on what they really want in the end, they'll turn against them. And if there's still no jobs back and they see a president who offers them bread and circuses through tweets but nothing substantial to help their lives and their community, I think you'll find something different.

LIASSON: In the end, voters may turn against the tax bill but probably not right away. In the short term, says Ben Domenech, the tax bill might be just the kind of win Trump and his party need.

DOMENECH: I think the truth is that this is a tax bill that if it does have a significant impact for most people, it will be a positive one. And their taxes will actually go down, or they'll be able to keep more of their own money.

LIASSON: That's because the tax bill is front-loaded. The goodies come first. The regressive, non-populist part of the bill where taxes for the middle class actually go up - that kicks in later, well after the next election cycle. Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.