Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate looks likely to be remembered as the moment when Sen. Marco Rubio definitively outshone his one-time mentor Jeb Bush. But perhaps most significant was the emergence, way down on the end of the stage, as Donald Trump would put it, of Ohio Gov. John Kasich as the Cassandra of the GOP primaries: a man blessed with the gift of prophecy but cursed with the inability to get anyone to believe it.
He came out, guns blazing, with an implied attack on frontrunners Ben Carson and Donald Trump, saying "we are on the verge, perhaps, of picking someone who cannot do this job," someone who would dismantle Medicare and Social Security and put forward "tax schemes that don't add up, that put our kids in — in a deeper hole than they are today."
Mr. Kasich came back to the topic of taxes and the budget later, reiterating, based on his experience in Congress in the 1990s, the need for an eat-your-spinach approach of "Hard work. Fiscal discipline. Know what you're doing," in contrast to back-of-the-cocktail-napkin proposals by the likes of Dr. Carson, whose plan based on the Biblical concept of tithing seems to shift from moment to moment, or Carly Fiorina, who has so far only specified that the 70,000 pages of the tax code should be reduced to three.
But he just as easily might have taken to task those who have actually spelled out what they would do on taxes because their plans are no less fantastical.
Sen. Ted Cruz's proposal may actually be more radical than Dr. Carson's. While Dr. Carson has shied away from a 10 percent flat tax, saying recently that the figure would likely be closer to 15, Senator Cruz takes 10 percent as a starting point. In addition, he would exempt the first $36,000 in income for a family of four, eliminate payroll taxes, estate taxes and corporate taxes and instead implement what he calls a corporate flat tax of 16 percent but which is really a value added tax.
The conservative-leaning Tax Foundation expects the plan would blow a $768 billion hole in the federal budget over a decade — and that's only assuming that it sparks an astronomical growth rate. Using static scoring — that is, the math of hard numbers that doesn't try to factor in economic growth, it would drop federal revenues by $3.6 billion over 10 years.
Sen. Marco Rubio's plan, which would reduce the tax brackets to two (15 percent and 35 percent) and make a wide variety of changes to child tax credits, personal exemptions, corporate taxes and other levies, would be revenue-positive, according to the Tax Foundation — eventually. The organization estimates that it would stimulate the economy to grow an eye-popping 15 percent more than it otherwise would over the next decade. After that, tax collections would increase by a little less than $100 billion a year. In the meantime, though, the treasury would be a further $1.7 trillion in the hole, $4.4 trillion if you use static scoring.
Mr. Bush's plan to cut individual and corporate tax rates — even assuming robust resulting economic growth — would cost $1.6 trillion.
But never one to be outdone, it is Mr. Trump whose tax plan really busts the bank. He's proposing to slash individual and corporate taxes, and eliminate the estate tax and the Alternative Minimum Tax, among other things, to the tune of just under $12 trillion over the next decade. The Tax Foundation also thinks this plan would stimulate growth, so taking that into account, "the plan would only reduce tax revenues by $10.14 trillion."
To a man and woman, the Republican candidates fretted about the nation's accumulated debt, which seemed to grow each time a candidate referred to it, from $18 trillion when Sen. Rand Paul first mentioned it in his opening statement, to $19 trillion (Messrs. Rubio and Trump), to $20 trillion by the time former Gov. Mike Huckabee brought it up in his closing remarks. Yet they blithely toss around promises for tax cuts that would pile on yet more debt, mainly to the benefit of the wealthy. Mr. Kasich brought all this up, in Mr. Trump's estimation, "because his poll numbers tanked ... and he got nasty." If that's what it takes for someone to interject a bit of reality into the discussion, so be it.