Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., clarified his opposition to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act this week, after Republicans and Fox News cited him to argue that the largely business-focused legislation was a boon for the working class.
Earlier in the week, Sanders watched Republicans promote only the first part of his answer to CNN's Jake Tapper, after the host asked whether the legislation's changes to the standard deduction and income tax brackets amounted to "a good thing." After Sanders said yes, the Republican National Committee issued a statement calling on Sanders and other critics of the bill to make permanent the "middle-class tax cuts," which are set to expire in 2025.
Sanders' response? No way.
"The Republicans are so desperate to spin their disastrous tax plan that they have resorted to taking comments I recently made completely out of context," Sanders said in a statement. "Instead of this grossly obscene piece of legislation, let's pass tax reform that permanently benefits all middle-income and working-class families without giving tax breaks to the top 1 percent. Instead of providing huge tax breaks to the rich and large corporations that explode the deficit, which this bill does, millionaires, billionaires and large, profitable corporations must begin paying their fair share of taxes."
It was not the first time that Sanders, a popular political figure, had been cited by conservatives to make a roundabout populist pitch. In October, the conservative group Campus Reform got some attention from Fox Business for interviews in which young voters praised features of the Republican tax plan when told they came from Sanders. In the video, voters were told about the plan to increase the child tax credit, end the estate tax and lower tax rates on small businesses to 25 percent.
"You read out, line by line, the Trump tax plan," said Fox Business host Stuart Varney to Campus Reform's Cabot Phillips. "You told them it was the Sanders plan."
"This plan was so compassionate, it was caring, it was common sense," said Phillips. "I think I could do the same interview on the Hill, talk to Senate Democrats, ask 'what do you think of Bernie's plan,' and get the same answers."
The questions as shown in Campus Reform's video, however, reflected neither the totality of the GOP's plan, or Sanders's own plans. At one point, Phillips was shown describing the estate tax as "the death tax," and implying that all taxpayers could be hit by it.
"When people die, it's a large tax on their estate," said Phillips.
Before the passage of the GOP's tax bill, the federal estate tax only affected taxpayers with more than $5.45 million in assets. The bill, as passed, doubled the exemption for the estate tax, but kept the tax itself in place. Sanders has proposed raising the tax from a pre-Trump level of 40 percent to 55 percent.
Two months later, as the bill was headed toward passage, conservative filmmaker Ami Horowitz conducted interviews in the "liberal mecca" of Manhattan to prove that Sanders supporters could support it. In a video for the Daily Wire, a conservative news site, Horowitz made six claims.
"If you're making $50,000 or less, a family of four will not pay any taxes at all."
"Double the child tax credit from $1,000 to $2,000."
"He's lowering corporate taxes from 35 percent to 21 percent."
"If you take out a mortgage for more than three quarters of a million dollars, you're going to pay taxes on that."
"The more money you make, the more a percentage of your income you have to pay in taxes."
"He keeps the Obama-era tax credits for clean energy."
As in the Campus Reform video, Horowitz offered a misleading rundown of the tax bill. One bullet point, the Obama-era tax credits, represented no change in policy. Neither did "the more money you make, the more you have to pay" - a rote description of the progressive income tax. The description of effects for a middle-class family of four was misleading — according to at least one study, that family's tax burden could slightly increase. And Sanders opposed the corporate tax cut.
Horowitz's video made two progressive-sounding claims, ones that hint at political risks for Democrats. The tax bill halved the mortgage interest deduction, which was among the reason several House Republicans from wealthy districts opposed it, but Democrats have been accused of sounding tin-eared by focusing on that aspect. Democrats, who have proposed their own versions of an enhanced child tax credit, also ended up opposing the only version that could pass by opposing the final bill.
In his statement, Sanders — who has laid out scores of tax changes that would shift the burden to the wealthy — named a few that most Democrats favor.
"Among other things, we can permanently double the standard deduction, expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, reinstate the personal exemptions and make the Child Tax Credit fully refundable — without increasing the debt future generations will inherit," he said.