The U.S. Capitol building stands at daybreak in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 11, 2015.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Bloomberg/Getty

Tax reform shouldn’t be decided by a debate over branding

With many Republican officials focusing attention on tax reform, the party is already divided over something called a border adjustment tax, which House Republican leaders support, but Senate Republicans hate. The provision, which would effectively impose a tax on imports, matters a great deal – it’s intended to help pay for the broader GOP goal of lower rates – and some presidential leadership will be necessary to resolve the intra-party fight.

With that in mind, it raised a few eyebrows when Donald Trump declared earlier this year, “Anytime I hear ‘border adjustment,’ I don’t love it.”

That led many to believe the White House was, at best, skeptical of the idea, but that wasn’t quite right. In this case, we needed to take Trump very literally: when he hears the words “border adjustment,” he doesn’t like it, not because he doubts the utility of the policy, but because he’s uncomfortable with the phrase itself.

This came up during Trump’s interview yesterday with Fox Business’ Maria Bartiromo:
BARTIROMO: How are you on the border adjustment tax? Have you decided?

TRUMP: I haven’t really wanted to talk about it. I have my own feelings. I don’t like the word “adjustment.” … I don’t like the term “border adjustment.”

BARTIROMO: Any tax at the border?

TRUMP: Weak. Let’s call it an import tax. Let’s call it a reciprocal tax.
Asked about his policy position, Trump responded by talking about word-choice. He has opinions about the underlying idea, but his perspective is shaped by his concerns about which words might sound “weak.”

Trump might like the idea more if it were called something else.

Slate’s Jordan Weissmann had a good piece on this yesterday, noting, “Tax reform is in many ways just as complicated and politically unwieldly. And at the moment, the president isn’t demonstrating any kind of firm grasp on the single topic that has defined the debate so far…. Trump’s intellectual vacuum could end up swallowing his whole party’s agenda.”

If this sounds at all familiar, there’s a good reason for that. At one point in early March, Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke about the party’s health care legislation, and the president said he had had a problem with the bill: Ryan had used the word “buckets” to describe the additional steps of reform that would follow the initial legislation. “I don’t like that word buckets,” Trump reportedly said, preferring “phases.”

The House Speaker obliged, but the anecdote was telling. As we discussed at the time, Trump’s focus was on branding and sales pitches, not how American families’ lives would be affected by the legislation he was purportedly eager to sign.

At a recent meeting with private-sector leaders, Trump boasted, “I’m good at branding.” That may be true, but is he good at anything else?

Donald Trump and Tax Reform

Tax reform shouldn't be decided by a debate over branding