In September, Donald Trump sat down with Scott Pelley of 60 Minutes and told the world that he was a different kind of Republican.
"Everybody’s got to be covered," he said, referring to his health care plan. "This is an un-Republican thing for me to say, because a lot of times they say, 'No, no, the lower 25 percent that can’t afford private.' But I am going to take care of everybody. I don’t care if it costs me votes or not."
"Who pays for it?" asked Pelley.
"The government’s gonna pay for it," Trump said, and he went on to promise that people on Trumpcare "can have their doctors, they can have plans, they can have everything."
This wasn't Trump's only divergence from Republican orthodoxy. When Pelley asked him who he would raise taxes on, Trump said "the very wealthy." He later said his tax plan would cost him "a fortune" in higher taxes.
Trump has now released both his health care and tax plans. And we can now say with certainty that Donald Trump was lying.
Why Donald Trump's policy plans should be taken seriously
Analyzing Donald Trump's policy plans can feel like a category error. Isn't the amazing thing that he has policy plans at all? I mean, no one expects him to stick to any of this, right?
I think of this as the dog-making-pancakes problem of covering Trump. His candidacy is so weird, so amazing, it often gets covered like a dog making pancakes — the thing worth covering is the sheer fact that a dog is making pancakes! Criticizing how the pancakes taste is missing the point.
But Trump is a frontrunner, not a curiosity, and his policy plans reveal two important things about his candidacy.
First, he lies constantly and fluently about what his policies actually are. Second, his advisers — whoever they may be — are leading him toward conventional Republican plans even on the issues where Trump has promised to throw out Republican orthodoxy.
This is why the details of Trump's plans matter — they speak to issues both of character and of staffing. There's nothing new about candidates exaggerating the benefits of their campaign proposals, but Trump's lies are something else entirely — his policies are often directionally different from the language he uses to sell them. Trump will routinely promise his plan is up when it is actually down.
But when Trump's plans diverge from his rhetoric, they don't diverge at random, which is what you might expect if Trump wasn't paying attention, or simply didn't know what he was talking about and was tasking some interns with turning his pronouncements into policy. Instead, Trump's plans tend to diverge in the same direction — toward conventional Republican ideas, which implies that he's relying on a fairly conventional set of advisers to write these proposals.
Trumpcare is watered-down Republican conventional wisdom
Donald Trump's health care plan will be familiar to anyone who has read a Republican health care plan in recent years.
It repeals Obamacare. It allows insurers to sell plans across state lines — a bad idea that mainly redistributes money from the sick to the healthy. It block-grants Medicaid, a way of cutting Medicaid under the guise of increasing state flexibility. It encourages the use of health savings accounts. It makes insurance premiums deductible — which does nothing for poorer taxpayers who don't have an income tax liability in the first place.
Trump's plan is a sketch at best; there's no coherent vision driving the document or connective tissue between the various ideas. It's like he stole another candidate's early notes toward a health care plan.
But far from diverging from Republican orthodoxy in the direction of covering more people, it diverges in the direction of covering fewer people. As Sarah Kliff notes, Trump's reliance on tax deductions makes his plan less progressive than most Republican reform plans, which rely on tax credits that are available to people even if they don't have any income tax liability. His plan would also allow insurers to discriminate based on preexisting conditions.
If you repealed Obamacare and replaced it with this plan, you'd see millions more people fall into the ranks of the uninsured. But to make sure I wasn't missing anything, I asked one of the smartest health wonks I know, the Kaiser Family Foundation's Larry Levitt, whether Trump's plan fulfilled his promises.
"There’s something of a mismatch between Trump’s talking points and the specific policies he’s proposed so far," Levitt dryly replied. "His public comments suggest that there would be safety net to take care of people who get sick and can’t afford health care on their own. His policy proposals, at least at this point, don’t accomplish that."
In the preamble to his plan, Trump promises to make sure that "no one slips through the cracks simply because they cannot afford insurance." But nothing in his plan comes remotely close to fulfilling that promise. As Kliff writes, under Trumpcare, "there's no guaranteed access to insurance at all."
Donald Trump's tax plan is a giant tax cut for rich people — including Donald Trump
The Republican field is full of breathtakingly large tax cuts. But even in the crazy context of this election, Trump's tax plan stands out for its sheer irresponsibility.
The Tax Policy Center found that Trump's tax cuts would cost about $9.5 trillion — and that's before accounting for interest on all that new debt. The size of that number boggles the mind. Trump's plan would, for instance, more than double the national debt. It would wipe out 45 percent of projected income tax revenue over the next decade.
If you ask budget wonks how to pay for a tax cut like that, they basically just laugh at you. "It's not even in the universe of the realistic," Marc Goldwein, the policy director of the Center for a Responsible Federal Budget, told Vox.
But Trump's tax plan isn't just incredibly expensive; it's also incredibly regressive. The Tax Policy Center found that the average low-income taxpayer would get $128 from Trump's plan, but the average top 1-percenter would get $275,257, and the average 0.1-percenter will get $1.3 million. It's a huge tax cut for Trump and his wealthy friends.
Trump's rhetoric about his tax plan fooled the media for a while. ABC News originally headlined its story on Trump's proposal "Donald Trump Calls for Higher Taxes for Wealthiest Americans," which was flatly false. But the reason they wrote that was because Trump kept saying it. The problem, of course, was that Trump was lying.
There was nothing technical stopping Trump from keeping his promise here. It is not difficult to write a plan that raises taxes on the wealthy. He just didn't do it.
Instead, he came out with a plan that looked like a normal Republican tax cut, only bigger. The Wall Street Journal editorial page — as authoritative an arbiter for conservative tax ideas as exists in the media — said the "good news" about Trump's tax plan was that, "like most of his GOP competitors, he wants to cut taxes for individuals and businesses to grow the economy. His anti-rich populism turns out to be exaggerated, not least by him."
Trump: more conservative than he appears, less honest than he seems
There are places where Trump really does diverge from conservative orthodoxy. His promise to slap a 35 percent tariff on Chinese goods, for instance, is a real break with the rest of his party. His immigration policies are as restrictionist and extreme as he's promised.
But for the most part, when Trump takes the time to write down what he wants to do, his moderation and heterodoxies prove to be a feint. His actual policies often do the precise opposite of what he promises. I don't know whether that's because Trump is actively trying to deceive the electorate or because he literally doesn't know or care what proposals are released under his name, but either way, the deception is in the details.
If Trump wins the Republican primary, these sorts of policies will help him unify the party. Ultimately, most conservatives who look closely at him will find enough of their orthodoxy in his platform to convince themselves that supporting his candidacy is a better bet than throwing the election to Hillary Clinton. And they'll be further comforted to find that Trump is, somewhere, relying on fairly conventional Republican advisers when he needs to write his policies — and that reliance is likely to increase as he tries to unite his party in a general election.
By the same token, these plans will make Trump's much-promised pivot to the middle difficult in a general election. Trump has committed himself to details that the media — not to mention his political opponents — can and will hold him to.
But even as the details of Trump's plans make him look like a more typical Republican presidential candidate, they make him look like a more atypical personality. Politicians have a reputation for lying, but that's a bit unfair — most of them try to stick to mere spin and misdirection, when possible.
Trump, however, will happily tell you the sky is brown even as he waves a photograph showing it's blue. The scope and brazenness of his lies are genuinely unusual. That he has managed to run for office pretending to be a teller of hard truths is further evidence of how far American politics has fallen, and how weakened the gatekeepers really are.