AGAINST THE GRAIN

The Political Case for Tax Cuts

Anti-Trump fervor has obscured the obvious: The tax bill is a conventional piece of Republican legislation. It won’t magically improve the GOP’s fortunes, but it will give the party some much-needed momentum.

Sen. Susan Collins and other senators rushed to the chamber to vote on amendments as the Republican leadership worked to craft its sweeping tax bill on Thursday.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Dec. 2, 2017, 6 a.m.

Last month, I wrote about why Republicans won’t get much of a boost from passing a tax overhaul. The case was simple: Voters are already so polarized that legislative wins don’t matter very much, the White House wasn’t doing an effective job selling the emerging bill, and House Republicans were exposed in enough blue-state districts where a critical mass of upper-income earners could actually see a small tax hike.

But now it feels like the political commentariat has jumped the shark in declaring the emerging tax legislation as a political disaster for Republicans. By focusing on the long-term phase-out of the income-tax cuts and the elimination of state and local deductions, many have ignored the obvious political upside for the party. The clear majority of Americans will be receiving income-tax cuts of varying degrees, and offering goodies to voters is usually a winner. The clearest argument against the legislation—that it would blow up the deficit—is one that’s tough for Democrats to make, given their reputation as a free-spending party.

It’s why opponents of the legislation have been dwelling on the finding that income taxes would rise for many Americans in 2025 when a phase-out of many individual tax reductions begins. Of course, this assumes that a future president would risk the wrath of voters by allowing a tax hike to happen by inaction. Even President Obama, under pressure from the public, agreed to extend President Bush’s tax cuts for most Americans after they expired.

Broadly speaking, passing tax cuts will give congressional Republicans an accomplishment to run on in next year’s midterms. The legislation, with its supply-side assumptions that cutting taxes leads to growth, will sound familiar to any past Republican administration. Unlike the various proposals to replace Obamacare, which drew middling GOP support, this legislation is receiving healthier support from Republicans. Quinnipiac found 60 percent of Republicans backing Trump’s tax plan last month; back in July, only 37 percent of Republicans favored Trump’s health care overhaul.

Polls show widespread dissatisfaction with the tax legislation, but because few voters will experience any burden as a result of the changes, the intensity of opposition has been muted. There’s not a wave of liberal protesters and activists raising holy hell about the bill, as they did during the health care debate. Over a quarter of Democrats believe that the bill won’t make any difference to their bottom line, according to the November Quinnipiac survey. That degree of partisan apathy is unusual in the Trump era.

It’s also become evident that under the Trump presidency, any legislation he touches will become broadly unpopular—regardless of its merits or flaws. He is so loathed by a critical mass of the country that anything he proposes has a narrow window to win majority support. And the White House’s ability to sell legislation is so poor that polls consistently show many Republicans undecided on whether to support it. Ultimately, if Republicans get a boost, it will be because enough of their voters approve of seeing more take-home pay—not because it will change the tribal dynamic of Trumpian Washington.

Democrats are correct in saying they can focus on the corporate goodies in the legislation as an example of Republicans catering to the wealthy. Indeed, to win Trump-friendly House seats, Democratic strategists are hoping to focus more on Paul Ryan as the GOP boogeyman than the president. But this plan was well in place long before tax reform was on the congressional agenda—and the principle of lower taxes has been at the core of GOP dogma for decades.

Here are some fundamental realities: Republicans are going to be facing a punishing midterm election, regardless of the tax package. The legislation is entirely consistent with the Republican Party’s worldview, long before Trump came on the scene. It’s why Republicans have been mostly unified on this front, from moderate Sen. Susan Collins of Maine to swing-district Rep. Barbara Comstock in Virginia.

The best-case scenario for Republicans is that the bill enthuses enough traditional GOP voters and its passage rallies enough Trump enthusiasts for the party to mitigate its losses. It’s more likely that the GOP’s House majority remains in serious jeopardy, an unchanged assessment from before. And if that happens, at least Republicans can say they accomplished something of significance when they had unified control of government.

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