Congressional Republicans talked themselves into passing a multi-trillion dollar transfer of national income to corporations and wealthy heirs by repeating, over and over again, that to not pass it would be politically riskier than to pass it, and without ever addressing the idea that they could do something better with all their power.
It is true that passing no major legislation after a year of unified control of government would demoralize any party, and that passing something might therefore be marginally less harmful to Republicans in electoral terms than passing nothing.
But this bill is so hideously unpopular that it’s hard to frame the contrived contest between passing it and not passing it as one with any clear political favorite, particularly when they’ve written the option of passing something else out of existence. Worse for Republicans, the bill also seems durably unpopular. Congress has never passed legislation this unpopular, as far as I know, but it is difficult to imagine a bill doubling its pitiful level of support before the next election, or even the one after that.
It is possible that this all comes as a surprise to Republicans in Congress. That they believed a regressive tax bill—which partially offsets the cost of enormous benefits for the super-wealthy with cuts to health spending and (eventually) a middle class tax increase—would be popular. Or at least not so terribly unpopular that it stands to become a defining vulnerability.
But the environment in which Republicans take this step, the way they are taking it, the fact that they are taking it at all—with all the challenges they and the country face—together point to something far more depraved. They hope, of course, that the bill will become popular quickly, and that their political fortunes improve in tandem, but their hope seems roughly analogous to the hope a getaway driver feels when he sees police sirens flash in the rearview and decides he may as well hit the gas.
Here for instance, from the office of Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), is the most persuasive political case for rushing the GOP tax bill into law that any Republican has yet mustered.
“Man I really hate Trump, but if the GOP doesn’t pass this tax bill I’ll totally vote Republican next November,” said no one ever.
— Conn Carroll (@conncarroll) December 19, 2017
Not passing it won’t win any converts, so we may as well pass it and pray for the best. Grab what we can and stash it away before it’s too late. The range of options in the Republican imagination completely excludes the notion of shelving the tax plan and coalescing around a different idea with broad support. The GOP’s peculiar mix of fatalism and urgency, secrecy and speed, desperation and single-mindedness, policy extremism and misdirection more cleanly tells the story of a desperate heist than of a confident party that believes it’s got the policy right and politics will follow.
They are claiming that the politics will follow, but that quite plainly isn’t what’s propelling them to clear the bar of final passage. The failures of the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, and of the the Kansas tax cuts and plutocratic Romney-Ryan campaign of 2012, loom large enough in historical memory for Republicans to know that this new bill isn’t what the public wants and is unlikely to generate the kinds of substantive returns that might radically change public opinion.
When Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010, they had reason to believe they would eventually be rewarded for what they’d done. The public supports universal health care. Their plan was crafted carefully enough that they generally understood its architecture and the ways the law would reshape health care system. Their confidence was part of the reason they fatefully yielded to fiscal scolds by backloading the law’s core benefits. The idea (incorrect, as it happens) was to limit sticker shock and create a long runway for implementation, undergirded by the belief that the political controversy would ebb once the benefits flowed.
The GOP has done almost exactly the opposite. The tax bill’s middle-class benefits are front-loaded and temporary. Most people really will get a tax cut next year. But much as Obamacare’s peripheral provisions (like the requirement that young adults can stay on their parents’ health plans) did not reverse public opinion, the tax bill’s consolation prizes won’t make people blind to the bill’s real purpose and effects.
Republicans are passing a bill that will fatten all of the swamp creatures Donald Trump claimed to want to starve. It will enrich the very members of Congress who voted for it. It will line the pockets of the president, but by amounts unknown, because he refuses to release his tax returns. And it will do all of this against a backdrop of financial chaos and looting. As the government struggles to implement a new tax system, the greediest citizens will game it, and reap a level of personal profit unimaginable to working people, many of whom will lose their health care.
That will be the soundtrack of the coming year, and $50 or $100 a paycheck won’t drown it out.
Republicans have reached a high ebb of power, and a historic threshold of corruption simultaneously. They spent the better part of their first year in control of Washington bungling legislative initiatives, but successfully enabling the misdeeds of a widely loathed, criminal president. They stranded millions of Puerto Ricans without power after an apocalyptic hurricane, and let a health insurance program for poor children begin to wither on the vine. The effect, so far, has been to shove the political pendulum in the other direction. They lost landslide off-year elections in Virginia and other states around the country. They lost a Senate seat in Alabama. Multiple House Republicans from Texas have inexplicably resigned, and credible reporting suggests that House Speaker Paul Ryan may wind down his legislative career once his donor-class masters have been served. Polls suggest that amid a growing economy hovering near full employment, the country despises the governing party, and is prepared to deal Republicans a double digit popular vote wipeout in the midterms next November. It might not happen, of course. Fortunes change. Politics is weird and unpredictable. But Republicans are behaving as if they see what everyone else sees coming. They’re just hightailing it with the cash instead of trying to avert it.