Jon Huntsman, the former Republican governor of Utah and more recently U.S. ambassador to China, has had his true-believer GOP credentials openly questioned by the Conservative Police.
True, Huntsman believes in evolution and accepts the reality of climate change while supporting civil unions for gay couples. But what made Huntsman suspect was his statement about President Barack Obama, who appointed him ambassador: “I respect the president of the United States. He and I have a difference of opinion on how to help a country we both love. But the question each of us wants the voters to answer is who will be the better president, not who who’s the better American.”
Make no mistake about it: The Republican Party of 2012 is significantly more conservative and less moderate than the Republican Party that, four years ago, nominated John McCain. It’s not that long ago that the Republican Party had real liberal stars such as Nelson Rockefeller, and Sens. Mark Hatfield of Oregon, Jacob Javits of New York, John Chaffee of Rhode Island and Mac Mathias of Maryland.
Not fully trusted by many liberal Democrats and disliked by many conservative Republicans, these GOP mavericks were taunted: The definition of a liberal Republican is someone who, when you’re drowning some 30 feet offshore, throws you a 20-foot rope and boasts that he “went more than halfway.”
Huntsman’s positions on science, the environment and cultural issues are indeed unorthodox in today’s Republican Party. But where the rubber hits the road — on who pays federal taxes — Huntsman is no flaming moderate. He’s more conservative than Mitt Romney.
This past week, Huntsman gave us his tax plan, which is enough to make Daddy Warbucks do handstands. Huntsman joins four fellow GOP presidential candidates — Rep. Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul of Texas, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former CEO Herman Cain — in calling for the elimination of any federal tax on capital gains.
According to the best estimate of the respected Tax Policy Center, U.S. households making less than $50,000 a year pay an average of less than $10 a year on investments. Even those earning $100,000 to $200,000 annually pay just an average of $400 in capital gains taxes.
And the real winners if the capital gains tax is in fact lowered to zero? According to the Tax Policy Center, the top 1 percent of earners with an average pre-tax income of almost $7 million, who under the Huntsman plan would get a windfall tax cut of $350,000 a year. How moderate would you call that?
Not very, by recent Republican standards. During the 1996 GOP presidential campaign, Steve Forbes advocated a 16 percent “flat tax” plan that excluded interest and dividend income from federal taxation. Forbes was challenged by Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, who argued, “It’s not fair to say that people who work with their head or with their hands ought to pay taxes, but that people who earn their living with capital ought not to.”
Republican candidate Pat Buchanan was more colorful in his criticism, suggesting that Forbes’ plan to exclude dividends from taxation must have been forged “by the boys at the yacht basin” because it would “let some trust-fund baby in Florida clip coupons the rest of his life and pay zero taxes.”
The criticism of Gramm and Buchanan are just as valid today. Why should a firefighter or nurse or a Marine gunnery sergeant pay federal taxes on the wages each earns through blood, sweat and skill, while the lazy heir to a family fortune does not pay a dime to Uncle Sam?
You can call the candidate who wants to completely abolish the capital gains tax a lot of things, but you cannot call him moderate.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.