During his last run for president, Rick Perry often pulled a postcard out of his jacket pocket.
“The best representation of my plan is this postcard, which taxpayers will be able to fill out to file their taxes,” Perry said.
While Perry proposed an optional 20 percent flat tax on all income levels, the other Texan running that cycle, Ron Paul, wanted to get rid of the income tax altogether. The former Surfside congressman sometimes suggested replacing it and other federal taxes with a sales tax, a concept often described as the Fair Tax.
As the 2016 landscape begins taking shape, potential Republican candidates are suggesting an interest in being both flat and fair, embracing some version of Perry’s 2012 proposal as the first step toward reaching Paul’s ideal.
Take U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, whose talk on taxes has sounded strikingly similar to Perry’s at times.
“We should let taxes become so simple that they could be filled out on a postcard,” Cruz wrote in a column for USA Today in October.
Yet while Cruz has called for converting the country’s progressive income tax system to a flat tax, his office confirmed that the Fair Tax is his long-term goal.
“The senator supports a Fair Tax, ultimately,” spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said. “However, the most immediate, effective way to implement comprehensive tax reform is to pass a simple flat tax — so simple that Americans can file on a postcard. This should be the starting point for reform, and once it's in place we should pursue a Fair Tax.”
Another presidential contender, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has also voiced support for a flat tax, but still prefers the vision of his libertarian father, Ron Paul.
“I’ve never said I don’t support a sales tax,” Rand Paul told The Texas Tribune recently while in Dallas. He explained that he viewed moving the federal tax system to a flat tax as “an easier concept to get through a legislature because you’re modifying the existing code.”
More broadly, Rand Paul said he was interested in stimulating economic growth by reducing the federal taxes overall.
“We’ve kind of lost that argument in recent years because many Republicans, including many in Washington, now simply argue for revenue neutral tax reform, which stimulates nothing,” Paul said.
For former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, those talking about the flat tax as a bridge to the Fair Tax are missing the point.
“Gov. Huckabee has said many times the Fair Tax is a flat tax, but it’s based on consumption rather than on punishing our productivity," spokeswoman Alice Stewart said.
Another potential presidential contender, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, delivered a speech on taxes and income inequality this week in Detroit that reportedly included support for simplifying the tax code, but did not include specific policy proposals.
Critics of both flat tax and Fair Tax proposals dismiss them as regressive plans that would amount to tax cuts for higher-income households while increasing the tax burden on middle-class households. But conservatives argue that dramatically simplifying the tax code, or moving to a tax system focused more on consumption than earnings, would be more transparent, simpler and better for the economy in the long run.
Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said discussion of flat taxes and consumption taxes works well politically with Republican voters, but described them as “pie-in-the-sky, no-way-in-hell” proposals that won’t ever muster enough support in Congress.
“When you talk about tax reform in an environment that is politically polarized as ours, it's hard to see how you get majority support, let alone a bipartisan package that could be taken to the public by both parties,” Jillson said. “It’s a way of saying, 'I have no sense of doing anything practical.' ”
While Cruz and Rand Paul have already signaled their positions, Perry, who has been meeting with dozens of policy experts to prepare for a second White House run, may end up tweaking his earlier flat tax plan.
“He supports simplifying the tax code, lowering rates for working families, and closing loopholes,” spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said. “Gov. Perry is continuing to work on policy proposals and will announce specific ideas at the appropriate time.”
Reporter Abby Livingston contributed to this report.
Disclosure: Southern Methodist University was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2013. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.