Opinion

Donald Trump is blowing up Paul Ryan's agenda

The best laid plans of Paul Ryan often go awry...

Will Washington Republicans steamroll Donald Trump? Some conservatives think so. Their logic: Trump is a policy amateur and political novice — one surrounding himself with other political novices like former Breitbart boss Steve Bannon — who lost the popular vote. The self-described billionaire also starts his term as a historically unpopular incoming president with a meager 40 percent approval rating. Then there's his attention span, or rather the lack of one.

But if Trump is going to be a weak, distracted, and acquiescent president, no one seems to have persuaded Trump of this. As his inauguration approaches, Trump and his close surrogates continue fiercely attacking (or at least undermining) key portions of the congressional GOP agenda, especially that of House Speaker Paul Ryan. For example, the GOP seemed to have settled on a "repeal and delay" strategy to replace ObamaCare. At his news conference last week, however, Trump said the health law would be repealed and replaced "essentially simultaneously." He is also promising to soon unveil a replacement that would provide "insurance for everybody." Do tell.

The Ryan Republicans want to reform Medicare and other middle-class entitlements as part of their effort to balance the federal budget and keep those programs solvent. At a CNN "town hall" meeting last week, Ryan argued that Medicare is the "biggest part of the debt crisis in the future, and it is something that we have to deal with." A few days later, incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos that "there are no plans in President-elect Trump's policies moving forward to touch Medicare and Social Security."

But the true heart of the GOP policy agenda is tax reform. Cutting taxes is what Republicans do. And the House GOP has a detailed plan to sharply lower personal and business tax rates that has been analyzed and scored by outside budget groups. Post-election investor enthusiasm for Trumponomics has been partly based on the notion that the proposal was pretty much buttoned-down and would get passed relatively quickly by Congress and signed by Trump.

And now Trump may have just scuppered the plan by blasting a key feature. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Trump had nothing positive to say about the GOP's "border adjustment" idea to tax imports and exempt exports. He called it "complicated' and added, "Anytime I hear border adjustment, I don't love it. Because usually it means we're going to get adjusted into a bad deal. That's what happens."

If the border adjustment feature is scrapped, it leaves Republicans with a massive budgetary hole in their economic plan, since border adjustment was supposed to raise some $1.2 trillion over a decade. Remember, Republicans have been touting their tax cut plan as not increasing the debt. Moreover, these estimates already include the possibility of more tax revenue from faster growth. Scored on a "static" rather than "dynamic" basis, the GOP tax plan might lose more than $3 trillion over a decade. And Republicans still say they want to balance the federal budget...

The border adjustment provision is supposed to be a less risky way to satisfy Trump's various protectionist demands than outright tariffs and punitive border taxes. As one analyst from the Tax Foundation, a group that scored the House plan, told the Journal, "If you take out the border adjustment, you have to really think about an entirely different reform."

Meanwhile, Team Trump seems more enthused about tariffs, guaranteeing women six weeks of paid maternity leave, and hectoring U.S. companies who want to offshore jobs. That stuff probably isn't why stocks rallied after the election. Nor does it have much to do with the agenda congressional Republicans have been crafting when out of power during the Obama years.

We may find out sooner rather than later who is going to roll over whom. And whose agenda will represent the ever-evolving Republican Party.

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