Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) disagreed Wednesday about the impact of taxes, the inheritance levy, government spending — even old English folklore.
CNN put on the made-for-TV event to highlight the debate over the Republican tax reform plan now making its way through Congress. Under the framework released by Republican leaders, the corporate tax rate would decline from 35 percent to 20 percent, and tax rates on personal income would be pared to three brackets — 12 percent, 25 percent and 35 percent.
Here are five takeaways from the debate:
1.) Cruz and Sanders disagree about the meaning of "Robin Hood." For Sanders, the "Robin Hood" metaphor is simple — Republicans want to take from the poor and middle class and give to the wealthy who fund GOP campaigns.
Sanders argued that 80 percent of the benefits of the tax cut would flow to the wealthiest 1 percent and said 30 percent of taxpayers would pay more. He also decried cuts to Medicaid, Medicare and other government programs.
"It is a Robin Hood proposal in reverse," he said.
Cruz countered that Sanders does not understand what the "Robin Hood" tale is about.
"Robin Hood was robbing the tax collectors, who were collecting too much taxes from the working men and women, and taking it for the rich. In Bernie's analogy, it is the Democrats who are King John and the sheriff of Nottingham," he said. "And Robin Hood is saying, ‘Tax collectors, stop hammering people who are struggling, who are laboring in the fields, who are working. Stop taking it to the castle to give out to your buddies.'"
2.) Democrats — or at least Sanders — do not want to stop at the rich. Among the audience members asking questions Wednesday evening was Jacob Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and a native of Sanders' favorite country: Denmark.
Kirkegaard said the senator talks up the benefits of his home country while downplaying the costs.
"I also know that these are countries that heavily tax everybody — not just the rich people," he said. "Middle class. They have consumption taxes on everything of 20 percent."
Kirkegaard added: "My sense is still that you'd like to spend as a Scandinavian but not tax as one."
Sanders responded by reciting what Denmark citizens get for their high taxes — government-financed health care, with small co-pays for doctor visits; affordable preschool; and tuition-free college.
"Nothing is for free," he said. "I believe in the kind of society which is different than Ted does."
Grateful for the contrast, Cruz pounced and said he welcomes a debate between raising taxes on all Americans versus cutting taxes on everyone.
"That is a rare moment of candor in Washington," he said.
3.) It is getting harder to draw a distinction between socialists and mainstream Democrats. Sanders famously has shunned association with the Democratic Party — he is the Senate's longest-serving independent — although he did seek the party's presidential nomination in 2016. But Sanders has taken a more active role in trying to reshape the Democratic party in his own progressive image.
The Vermont senator proudly calls himself a democratic socialist. A large chunk of the Senate Democratic caucus has signed on as co-sponsors of his "Medicare for All" universal health care plan.
"What is the difference between a socialist and a Democrat on taxes?"
Cruz tried to tease out what distinguishes socialism from garden-variety Democrats.
"What is the difference between a socialist and a Democrat on taxes?" he asked.
Responded Sanders: "I don't know the answer to that."
Cruz quipped, "I don't, either."
4.) Sanders strangely defended a tax break that makes the federal tax code less progressive. Andrea Nikischer, a professor at State University of New York at Buffalo, told Cruz that she depends on a deduction that lets taxpayers write off the state and local taxes they pay when filing their federal tax returns.
Independent analysts say 90 percent of the benefits go to households making $100,000 or more, and about a third goes to the top 1 percent. Eliminating the break would save the government $1.3 trillion to $1.8 trillion over 10 years, according to forecasts.
Sanders claimed the GOP tax plan would raise taxes on middle-class taxpayers, in part by eliminating the state and local tax deduction — all to unfairly benefit the rich, he said.
"I do not believe that everybody deserves a tax break," he said.
Cruz said he would not support eliminating the tax breaks without steep reductions in tax rates.
"The objective of tax reform should be cutting everyone's taxes," he said.
CNN anchor Jake Tapper pointed to a Government Finance Officers Association study last month indicating that 28 million households claimed the deduction in 2015.
"We've got to lower the rate enough that those 28 million are paying less in taxes," Cruz said.
5.) Sanders is as attracted to class warfare as ever. Sanders did not utter his famous campaign phrase "millionaires and billionaires." Actually, it was Cruz who used the phrase — four times — to make points against his sparring partner.
But Sanders spent plenty of time bashing the wealthy. He blasted a proposal to eliminate the estate tax.
"This is an incredible boondoggle going to the top two-tenths of 1 percent," he said.
He criticized wealthy campaign contributors, especially brothers Charles and David Koch, popular boogeymen for the Left. He painted a picture of the Koch brothers spreading millions of dollars to Republican campaigns and pulling puppet strings to safeguard their wealth.
Sanders even blamed the rich for Republican arguments that tax cuts can pay for themselves with increased economic activity.
"It's a fraudulent theory developed by the wealthy people," he said. "Just coincidentally, big-money think tanks think it's a great job, great idea to give tax breaks to the wealthy. Isn't that a great surprise?"
Cruz pushed back against the notion that the Koch brothers are all-powerful. He noted that they rank 59th on the list of most generous donors, and that Democratic donors dominate the top of that list.
Cruz also said it is fundamentally dishonest to argue that Sanders-style government can be paid for without massive tax hikes on the middle class. He noted that Sanders proposed $13 trillion in spending when he ran for president last year.
"We could take every single person making $1 million a year or more and confiscate 100 percent of their income — everything they make, every penny — and it would raise about $1 trillion, about 8 percent of the cost of Bernie's tax plan," he said.
Last Modified: October 19, 2017, 11:55 am