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Trump frees Republicans from rigid litmus tests

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(Bloomberg View) — Over the span of two days, the Republican nominee for president has proposed new child-care and elder-care subsidies, new mandatory benefits to be provided by business, the removal of millions of families from the income-tax rolls, and an increase in tax rates on single people making from $112,500 to $190,000 a year. Oh, and he put in a good word for Medicaid too, leaving the impression with many people that he favors expanding it.

Related: Trump says he’d use Medicaid to expand insurance coverage

Donald Trump’s Republican critics say that these announcements prove what they have been saying all along: that he is no conservative. None of the Republicans he beat in the primaries would have pursued these initiatives. But the difference between Trump and other Republicans isn’t just that he has different views. It’s also that he has less fear.

In recent years, Republican politicians have tended to keep heterodox thoughts about policy to private conversations, or not voiced them at all. They thought that they needed to stay within tightly drawn lines to avoid conservative criticism — criticism that could cost them primaries, or depress Republican turnout in general elections.

And those lines kept getting narrower. Propose a replacement for Obamacare that sought to keep millions of people from losing coverage, and you’d meet the accusation of favoring “Obamacare lite.” Some Republicans thought that they could achieve perfect conservative reputations by proposing to put everyone, no matter how poor, on the tax rolls.

Republicans who proposed ideas that did not fit within these lines did so very carefully. Like Trump, Marco Rubio came out with a tax plan that cut taxes in general, helped parents and raised tax rates on some affluent single people. But some conservatives criticized the plan, and he dropped the increased tax rates.

Trump has proved that those fears were overstated or, at least, that they do not apply to him. None of these positions seem to be costing him any of his supporters, just as his opposition to entitlement reform and free trade did not keep him from winning the Republican nomination.

Trump even managed to wriggle out of his own previous position that all illegal immigrants had to be deported: He gave a speech that implied that a lot of them would be able to stay in the country under his administration, and even that they might one day get legal status. When past Republicans have spoken similarly, they have been accused of supporting “amnesty” — sometimes by Trump himself.

On many issues, Trump has maintained the party line. He became an opponent of abortion and same-sex marriage before running for the Republican nomination; he says he will repeal Obamacare and oppose general tax increases. But he has exercised more freedom than Republican politicians dreamed they had. For years, they have been complaining that purists had imposed a series of litmus tests that kept their party from winning elections or governing well.

For good or ill, and probably some of both, that stranglehold now appears to be broken.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. 


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