If you have heard about Jeb Bush’s new tax plan by reading political reporters, you have probably heard that it is a “proposal to reform the tax code” that will “crack down on hedge fund managers” (CNN), that it is “mainstream and ordinary” with “a populist note” (NPR), that it “challenged some long-held tenets of conservative tax policy” (the New York Times), and has “a nod to the populist anger roiling both parties” (The Wall Street Journal). It is, in other words, the same sort of coverage George W. Bush received when he unveiled his tax cuts in 1999, and which the campaign successfully cast as a populist departure from traditional Republican priorities.
On the other hand, if you have learned about the tax plan from some of the new policy-focused writers, you have drawn a very different impression. It is a “large tax cut for the wealthiest” (the Upshot) and a reprise of the Bush tax cuts, but “with more exclamation points” (Wonkblog). The difference lies between journalists who write narratives drawn from quotes from campaign sources and those who build their coverage on data. George W. Bush was fortunate that data-based journalism barely existed 16 years ago. His brother is counting on the power of narrative to obscure the data.
There are criticisms to be made of “data-driven” journalism, and it’s no panacea. But if you compare it to old-fashioned “narrative” journalism, it’s certainly a major improvement. Any remotely competent policy-based evaluation of Bush’s tax cuts will show them to be massively regressive and massively revenue-negative. But — particularly if they include one sensible reform that would stand no chance of surviving the sausage-making process in Congress — you can appeal to traditional journalists by just describing your plan as a populist reform and counting on conventions to prevent journalists from telling their readers that you’re lying and/or dissembling. Jeb!’s brother, as Chait observes, exploited these conventions brilliantly.