What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

How poverty and inequality are motivating Democrats on tax policy

Numerous Democrats have already announced or hinted at their candidacy in the 2020 presidential election. For many of them, tax policy, and specifically, increasing how much the very wealthy pay, is a platform priority. Lisa Desjardins reports on their proposals and talks to the Washington Post's Philip Bump about why taxes are in the spotlight now and how American voters are likely to respond.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tonight: the first in our new series examining the policy positions of the ever-growing crop of 20 presidential contenders.

    Lisa Desjardins begins our coverage with a look at the range of tax plans being pushed on the campaign trail.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Front and center on the 2020 Democratic campaign trail, widening economic divide.

  • Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.:

    Reversing this administration's giveaways to the top big corporations and the top 1 percent.


  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It is a twofold push. Candidates' are outlining new plans to reduce poverty and blasting the Republican tax cuts, especially the corporate cuts, as giveaways to the rich.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.:

    It is not moral, it is not acceptable, and it is not sustainable that the top one-10th of 1 percent now owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, newly announced as a presidential candidate, sparked this latest drive in his 2016 run. He wants to provide universal health care, as well as free preschool and free tuition at public colleges.

    He'd raise money for that by raising estate taxes on any inheritance over $3.5 million, with a top rate of 77 percent tax at $1 billion.

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D- Mass.:

    We can't afford to just tinker around the edges, a tax credit here, a regulation there. Our fight is for big structural change.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren would transform the cost of child care. She'd make it free for low-income families and cap it at much lower than current costs for most everyone else. Warren would pay for that with a first-of-its-kind 2 percent tax on overall wealth or net worth above $50 million.

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D- Mass.:

    And an ultra-millionaire's tax to make sure that rich people start doing their part for the country that made them rich.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    There is more.

  • Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.:

    We will deliver the largest working and middle-class tax cut in a generation.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    California Senator Kamala Harris proposes a more classic middle- and lower-class tax cut. Anyone making less than $50,000 a year, would see a $3,000 tax credit. It'd be twice that for families. Her pay plan? Eliminate some current Republican tax cuts.

    One thing Harris, and another presidential candidate also tackle housing and rent.

  • Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.:

    We need a lot of change from our tax laws, making them more fair, to ending things like carried interest.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    New Jersey senator Cory Booker's plan would give a tax credit to those whose income goes disproportionately to rent. He'd also provide a $1,000 savings bond to each child every year until they turn 18. Booker would raise the current estate tax.

  • Julian Castro:

    I can support folks at the top paying their fair share.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Julian Castro, the former housing and urban development secretary under President Obama, has backed an idea by New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to return to pre-1980s individual tax rates, with incomes over $10 million taxed at 60 to 70 percent. That tax is now capped at 37 percent.

    New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand's campaign also says she's interested in pursuing higher taxes on the rich.

  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.:

    It is time, America!

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Meanwhile, centrist Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar takes a different approach. She would close what she sees as tax loopholes for the rich, but otherwise believes her fellow Democrats are going too far.

  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.:

    I am not for free four-year college for all, no.

    If I was a magic genie and could give that to everyone and we could afford it, I would.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In a crowded field of Democratic candidates, a rigorous and broad debate over wealth.

    For more, we turn to Philip Bump of The Washington Post.

    And, Philip, let me just start right away with, why do you think all of these plans are happening now?

  • Philip Bump:

    Well, we're talking about a Democratic electorate which, over the course of the past two decades, and even over the course of the last five years or so, has grown increasingly liberal.

    This is an electorate that that will be voting in the Democratic primaries which wants to start bold talk on things like raising taxes for the wealthiest Americans. This is a very different electorate than went to the polls in 1992 and brought Bill Clinton to the White House, and who then sort of took a middle-of-the-road strategy towards governance.

    This is not what Democrats now want to see. And the Democrats who have jumped into the race already are very cognizant of that.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This is a broad spectrum of ideas, all dealing with wealth, some with rentals and housing, some with child care, others with education.

    How do you group these plans in a way to try and conceptualize the important differences here?

  • Philip Bump:

    Well, I think there are a series of plans which really put a focus on where the revenue is generated from, right?

    So we see things like Senator Bernie Sanders' proposals around the estate tax. We see Senator Elizabeth Warren's proposal on taxing income. We see these various proposals that are focused on where the revenue comes from.

    And we see a lot of proposals as well, including some from Sanders and Warren, which focus on what the benefits would be, the result from that revenue increase.

    We see people like Senator Kamala Harris who put an emphasis on what the programs are first, and then talk a little bit about where some of the additional revenue would come from after the fact. So there — it really is sort of a bidirectional strategy.

    And I think that the thing that we're not used to seeing — we're very used to see proposed programs. We're very used to seeing proposed tax cuts for the middle class, such as Harris' before. What we're less used to seeing in presidential politics is really bold and aggressive talk about taxing the richest Americans at a higher rate.

    That, I think, is unusual. And I think that's new to this primary season to some extent too.

  • Lisa Desjardins:


    And what do we know about the appeal of that to the American voter?

  • Philip Bump:

    I mean, Americans broadly would like to see rich people pay more in taxes, right?

    I mean, this is something that Gallup has been polling on for decades. And, consistently, people think the richest Americans don't pay their fair share of taxes. Now, the problem is, once you start actually talking about what that means, once you actually start putting forward proposals about taxation, it gets a lot murkier pretty quickly.

    So, for example, if you take Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's his proposal to — it was sort of a suggestion. I shouldn't even really say a proposal, but her suggestion that you tax people who have $10 million in income or more annually at 70 percent.

    That's something that actually doesn't poll that well. While you can ask people, do you think people who earn $10 million or more a year should see higher taxes, people — yes, broadly. A FOX News poll shows that that sort of taxation is very popular. But a very specific proposal like because Ocasio-Cortez's doesn't fare as well because people start considering the numbers.

    So, that said, I think it is the case that some of these proposals that are being put forward that really do narrow pretty specifically on the wealthiest Americans are going to be ones that the Democratic base can embrace.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Philip Bump, a big question with just a little bit of time left.

    It's been sort of a rule of American politics for decades that you don't propose a tax increase. Whether or not these candidates are successful becoming president, is that rule potentially up for changing? Do we see sort of a sea change here in atmosphere?

  • Philip Bump:

    Yes, I mean, I think it may be, in part because the Republicans, after years of talking about slashing taxes, were actually able to do so in 2017.

    So Americans have seen that sort of proposal go into effect in a way that is fairly novel in recent years. And they have seen what the effects of that have been. We have seen, for example, revenue from corporations drop pretty substantially between 2017 and 2018.

    Those are the sorts of things that Americans can now look at and say, OK, these are — we know what that change looks like that may make them more open to other changes in tax code. And, again, I can't reinforce this enough. In the abstract, Americans really like the idea of rich Americans paying more in taxes.

    It's just whether or not a candidate can find that sweet spot of a particular policy proposal that appeals both to Democrats in the primary and Americans more generally during the general election.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In about a year or so, we should find out.

  • Philip Bump:

    That's exactly right.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Philip Bump, thank you very much.

Listen to this Segment