Will the Pawlenty tax plan set the GOP bar?

Reader D.D. emailed the other day comparing Tim Pawlenty’s tax-cut plan to John Edwards’ health care plan in 2007. As many of you may recall, Edwards needed a campaign boost, so he presented an ambitious health care reform plan, which was well received, and effectively dared the Clinton and Obama campaigns to follow suit. Soon after, they did, embracing plans very similar to Edwards’ framework.

D.D.’s point was that Edwards set the bar and forced his presidential rivals to match it. The question is whether Pawlenty has done the same thing.

Brian Beutler is thinking along the same lines.

We’ll get a first glimpse of how Pawlenty’s GOP rivals react to his proposal at tonight’s debate. Do they embrace the underlying principles of the plan so that Pawlenty doesn’t outflank them on the right? Or do they try to one up him with even more dramatic overhauls of the tax code?

Pawlenty proposes to reduce the top individual income tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent, cut the top corporate rate from 25 percent to 15 percent, and allow pass-through corporations to pay taxes at the corporate rate. He also wants to completely eliminate capital gains taxes, taxes on dividends and interest, and the estate tax.

Altogether, according to the Tax Policy Center, it would cost the Treasury over $11 trillion over the course of a decade — most of which would benefit the wealthiest Americans. It’s a recipe for either a catastrophic budget crisis, or a fundamental dismantling of the public sector’s role in American life, or both.

It’s radical vision and rosy assumptions have earned it derision from leading conservative commenters and policy experts.

But pleasing policy experts is no way to win a Republican presidential nomination. This is about satisfying the demands of an angry, right-wing base, which probably likes the sound of $11 trillion in additional tax breaks.

So, what do Pawlenty’s rivals do about this? It stands to reason that the other candidates aren’t going to say, “The Pawlenty plan cuts taxes too much, especially at a time of high deficits, and it would be irresponsible to pursue such a reckless path,” since such a sentiment would doom a GOP campaign. That leaves Republicans two choices: match Pawlenty or go even further.

I connected with Bruce Bartlett this morning, who joked, “Will Bachmann have the courage to accuse Pawlenty for being a wimp by promising just 5% per year growth? She should double down and promise 10% growth, thereby winning the all-important Larry Kudlow primary.”

Bartlett was kidding, of course, but the discussion may very well go in this direction. We’re about to enter a ridiculous game of one-upmanship, with each GOP presidential hopeful eager to prove that the other candidates aren’t being nearly radical enough.

The bar is now set at $11.6 trillion in tax breaks. Do I hear $12 trillion?