WASHINGTON — Donald Trump tried rebooting his presidential campaign Monday with an economic speech in Detroit focused on American pocketbook anxieties, pushing tax cuts and deregulation to the forefront after weeks of self-inflicted controversies and plummeting poll numbers.
But the relatively modest speech made news mostly because it hewed closely to conventional Republican policy doctrine, a fresh tack for an unconventional candidate.
He repackaged some of his older proposals, including big tax reductions for corporations and business partnerships, and added some new tax-reduction benefits for the middle-class and the wealthy.
He also promised a fat income tax deduction for child-care expenses, a policy his daughter Ivanka first touted in her Republican National Convention address last month.
Along with all that came another plan, eliminating the estate tax, that could undercut his populist appeal. Its benefit would be limited to high-net-worth families like Trump’s, with estates greater than $5.45 million, which are the only ones taxed under current law.
“These reforms will offer the biggest tax revolution since the Reagan tax reform,” Trump said, reading from a teleprompter. “I want to jump-start America.” Then he ad-libbed, “It can be done. And it won’t even be that hard.”
Trump also modified the size of personal income tax breaks he wants to give the wealthiest Americans. Instead of reducing the top tax bracket from 39.6 percent to 25 percent, as he previously proposed, he would now cut it to 33 percent, as proposed by House Republicans. That would limit, but not eliminate, some of the damage it would wreak on federal budgets.
Trump kept his cool, sticking mostly to his script on how to make America win again, as hecklers interrupted his speech more than a dozen times. He slammed Hillary Clinton’s economic policies and characterized her as a “candidate of the past” while promising to “massively” cut regulations and renegotiate trade deals in his quest for economic renewal.
Clinton is scheduled to deliver her economic rebuttal to Trump on Thursday, also from Detroit.
Clinton is making jobs and the economy a centerpiece of her campaign, seeing it as an area in which to draw a stark contrast with Trump. Her campaign tried to preempt Trump’s speech by posting a video Sunday arguing that “Trumponomics” would trigger recession, job losses, and possibly another financial catastrophe.
Republican strategists praised Trump’s speech for refocusing on a policy area they see as his strength, and said Trump could have a “fighting chance” against Clinton if, and only if, he spends the next three months delivering his message in a disciplined and consistent manner.
He cannot afford to veer off course with any more unscripted personal attacks, they said. Clinton’s lead over Trump opened up by 10 points in the wake of both conventions and a series of missteps including his recent criticism of a Muslim couple whose son was killed in combat.
“It was a good, big-boy-pants speech,” said Dave Carney, a Republican consultant from New Hampshire.
“Compared to what he normally does, it was 180 degrees different. Ten days ago, he was doing great, and then it was all over. The economy and national security — those are the two baskets he should be peddling for the next 90 days,’’ Carney said.
Some analysts expressed doubt whether the speech will make much of a difference in a campaign they view as especially unorganized, with little to no ground game in swing states.
“Is there anything different today than yesterday? I don’t see that there is,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist and former spokesman for the Republican National Committee who has said he would not vote for Trump.
“He’ll give more speeches from teleprompters but it’s hard to see how they will make any more substantive difference for his campaign, because what you see on the ground is a campaign that is nonexistent,’’ Heye said. “It is a campaign that exists on television and on Twitter but nowhere else.”
The latest Real Clear Politics average of national polls showed Clinton with a lead of more than 7 points.
Trump doubled down on his criticisms of Clinton throughout his speech, repeating a false statement about Clinton wanting to raise taxes on the middle class, even though the fact-checking organization Politifact rated his claim as “pants on fire” three days ago.
Clinton herself took direct aim at Trump’s speech during a rally in St. Petersburg, Fla., Monday afternoon.
She said his recently-named economic advisers “tried to make his old tired ideas sound new, but here’s what we all know because we heard it again: his tax plans will give super big tax breaks to large corporations and the really wealthy, just like him and the guys who wrote the speech.”
As with foreign policy, the Clinton campaign is painting Trump as too dangerous and erratic to command the helm of the US economy.
They point to his business record, emphasizing his companies’ multiple bankruptcies and the slew of lawsuits from vendors and contractors he didn’t pay, as evidence he is not a good steward for the economy writ large.
The Clinton campaign ran interference against Trump’s economic speech Monday by hosting about a dozen press events in battleground states.
Gene Sperling, a former top Obama economic aide, said in one conference call that even with the tweaks announced Monday, Trump’s tax plan would exacerbate income inequality by delivering the vast majority of its benefits to the top 1 percent of Americans.
And analysts across the ideological spectrum noted that Trump’s new child-care deduction, designed to appeal to educated female voters, would help middle- and upper-middle class families far more than lower-income workers struggling paycheck to paycheck. That’s because low-income Americans pay very little to no federal income tax.
The National Federation of Independent Business, a small business association, praised Trump’s proposal to reduce the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 15 percent. The plan was seen as a bone to the GOP establishment.
The Clinton campaign criticized it Monday as simply another way to allow millionaires and billionaires to pay lower taxes by reclassifying their salary income as business income.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Senator John McCain’s chief economic adviser during the 2008 presidential campaign and president of the conservative American Action Forum think tank, called Trump’s economic plan “more relaunch than revised.”
The new changes and Trump saying he plans to build upon GOP principles were “a pretty clear olive branch to the rest of the Republican Party.”
“That doesn’t leave us with a lot of clarity about what his actual plan is,” Holtz-Eakin said. “It’s now a work in progress again.”