Republicans Have Exposed Themselves

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The Speaker of the United States House Paul Ryan speaks at the Capitol as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell looks on at right

The Republicans’ disdain for America has been laid bare by their tax plan. Progressives must take advantage of this moment.

As you surely know, the versions of the bill passed by the House and Senate are beyond terrible, and they just gets worse with each cover-of-night iteration. Simply put, they accomplish four goals, which I outline below. The evidence behind these assertions is overwhelming and has been made repeatedly, so rather than repeat it, I’ll provide links to the facts.

But if facts were actually in play, we wouldn’t still be arguing about the offsetting growth effects of trickle-down economics, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wouldn’t be blithely asserting that the growth effects will more than pay for the revenues lost by this plan.

To be clear, I haven’t given up for a second on fact-based argument. But it is axiomatic that it is not winning and unless we want to wander the political wilderness forever, muttering about our distributional tables and dynamic scores, something more is needed. So, let’s start by recognizing what the majority is really up to here.

·      Their plan shifts tax revenues from the U.S. Treasury to the wealthy. In doing so, the plan is as solicitous of those whose income is asset-based as it is punishing to those foolish enough to depend on paychecks. (Evidence here, here, and here.)

·      It raises the deficit by at least $1 trillion over 10 years, though that’s surely a low-ball estimate. (Evidence here.)

·      It signals a new, aggressive push by conservatives to radically shrink government (evidence).

·      It vastly complicates an already complex tax code on behalf of tax avoiders and evaders, while opening up a huge new loophole incentivizing high-end wage earners to redefine their income as business profits (evidence).

In other words, the plan uses deficit-financed upward redistribution to create more public debt, which Republicans are already pointing to as a means of enforcing spending cuts to social insurance and safety net programs. If you think I’m being alarmist, consider that the lead Republican tax writer, Utah Senator Orin Hatch, just said that the reason that essential funding for the Child’s Health Insurance Program “is having trouble [passing] is because we don’t have money anymore.”

What is a coherent opposition to this madness?

Such an opposition must start from the recognition that the role of government in meeting market failures and inadequate opportunities is, if anything, increasing, as a result of rising pressure from our aging population, climate change, poverty and inequality, decaying infrastructure, and racial and gender injustices. Simply supporting Medicare and Social Security at current levels will require 2.5 percentage points more of GDP in tax revenues over the next decade.

Yes, Republicans will argue, as Hatch does above, that we simply can’t afford any of this. But that argument, while never credible—affordability is a political choice, as a quick glance at the much deeper social welfare programs of Europe reveals—is now thoroughly indefensible. Republicans easily could have written a revenue neutral tax bill. But they decided not to do so, and they thereby sacrifice any right to austerity arguments.

I’m not saying they won’t make those arguments. Of course, they will. I’m saying that the media and everyone else cannot take them the slightest bit seriously. Their tax plan reveals their preferences and their trade-offs: take from the poor and middle-class and give to the rich. So be it. We have a different set of preferences. Their tax bill lays clear the crucial insight that the size and role of government was never an argument about what we could or couldn’t afford, as if there’s some limiting physical constant in play. It always was and always will be an argument about choices, values, and power.

But what about politics? If people really want and need a better, more comprehensive government sector to meet the challenges ticked off above, why do they keep electing those who act against that outcome?

For one, because a demagogic, faux populist convinced enough voters in swing states that he was, in fact, going to use the power of the government to shake their living standards free from the stagnation that’s prevailed for decades. An economic vote from Trump (as distinct from a racist or xenophobic vote) was by no means a vote for greater austerity or upward redistribution.

For another, Democrats have not articulated a compelling, convincing agenda that would clearly lift the living standards of those on the wrong side of the inequality divide. What’s of particular concern to me these days is that I don’t see enough ongoing work on building this agenda. What’s the progressive plan for trade policy, for jobs, for taxes, for universal health coverage, for criminal justice? I’m not necessarily saying the politicians should be working on such an agenda at this stage. Defense is hard enough and I don’t think having their own tax plan, for example, would have helped Democrats in this debate.

Surely, the progressive think-tank community and our network of public policy scholars (and publication outlets like this one!) should be tapped to work on this agenda. The pendulum will swing back and progressives need to be ready to hit the ground running. Republicans are masters of getting elected but clueless at governing (though recent election results in my home state of Virginia perhaps reveal that voters are onto them). As we saw in the health-care debate, they have no answers to any of those agenda items above, save that of cutting taxes, which is, of course, their trademark.

Out of crisis comes opportunity. I’m not saying there’s a silver lining to this odious tax plan, but I’m very much saying this is a moment wherein the Republican disdain for the vast majority of American households has been laid bare. It is up to us to make as much noise as we can about that, while diligently planning an alternative agenda that doesn’t lie about helping the middle-class and the poor while delivering to the rich, but really helps them.

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