The pretty, decent Republicans lose. The people who look and act the way we hope for our children lose. Somehow, we ended up with a game show host who ran a fraudulent pseudo-university and freaks like Roy Moore, a disgraced and defenestrated former judge.
How does this happen? It happens because the Republicans with the solid family lives, sparkling résumés, unlined faces, and big white teeth think they are entitled to rule the rest of us in their own interests. They think their (real) virtues entitle them to ignore the priorities of the electorate. There will always be fools and con artists but, right now, the vices of the good men are killing us.
The Republicans have managed the unlikely feat of producing a tax-cut bill that has only 26 percent support. This is part of a pattern whereby the allegedly responsible, thoughtful, public-spirited Republican leaders, such as Paul Ryan, produce legislation that is somehow even less popular than our already very unpopular president.
Josh Barro thinks that Republicans have forgotten what worked for earlier Republican presidents. George W. Bush produced a tax plan that reduced the top marginal rate for the highest earners, but he also wanted to cut taxes on as many people as possible and avoid raising taxes on anybody (especially the middle class). This time, the congressional Republicans started off with a plan that would have raised taxes on millions and hit married, middle-class parents of multiple children (basically the Republican voting base) especially hard.
Barro also thinks that Republicans have forgotten how to talk about taxes. He hits them for focusing on the unpopular cuts to the corporate income tax rather than other tax cuts (in the more recent iteration of the bill) that benefit middle-class workers like Uber drivers.
But maybe they haven’t forgotten. Maybe the Republican leadership has changed. Our modern tax politics began with the tax revolts of the late 1970s. These were broad-based movements. They included high earners who found the 70-percent top income-tax bracket both unfair and absurdly anti-growth, but also wage-earners who were angry about rising property taxes and bracket creep (when inflation forced them into higher tax brackets, even as the eroding value of the dollar reduced their purchasing power). This was when the center-right adopted a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats approach to taxes. Homeowners passed laws that limited the increase of property taxes. Congress cut taxes for high earners, but also indexed tax rates to inflation so that wage-earners would not face tax increases caused by rising prices. Everybody pretty much got something.
But something has changed in recent years. One visible sign was the Wall Street Journal’s infamous “lucky duckies” editorial, which complained that lower-middle-class people (those lucky duckies) with little income-tax liability might get a cut to their payroll taxes, and that this cut would reduce the tax cuts that might otherwise have gone to the more productive and deserving high earners.
This argument started an unfortunate trend within elite Republican discourse. Since the 1970s, conservatives had been on the side of the taxpayer, but successive tax cuts had reduced or eliminated the income-tax liability of many Americans. Elite Republicans then reinterpreted the payroll taxes as somehow not taxes and began to label the people who paid those taxes as deadbeats. A tax was only a tax if the business owners who had “built that” were paying it. If it was paid by wage-earners, it didn’t count.
The most famous example is Mitt Romney’s even more infamous “47 percent” comments to an audience of wealthy donors. The 47 percent were the estimated fraction of tax filers who supposedly had no net income-tax liability (though most of them almost certainly had a payroll-tax liability). Romney said:
These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect . . . . And he’ll [Barack Obama] be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. And so my job is not to worry about those people—I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
Romney apologized and claimed that he had been misunderstood (when he had been understood all too well), but Republicans have abandoned Romney’s “47 percent” rhetoric—while embracing his understanding of politics.
Edward Conard, like Mitt Romney a Bain Capital guy, might be called Mitt Romney’s id. He argues that a proposal to set the corporate tax rate at 22 percent rather than 20 percent in order to finance a tax credit that reduces the payroll-tax liability of mostly wage-earning parents would hurt the economy, because it would reduce economic growth and diminish “middle-class incomes in the long run.”
Now it is possible that, in some circumstances, a tax could be so high and reduce economic growth so much that it would actually lose the government money. But good luck finding an economist who would argue that 22 percent is the money-losing number. It would also be possible to set taxes so high that pretty much everybody would come out as net losers, because the economy would contract so much. But it is rather implausible that the microscopic increment of economic growth resulting from a very slightly higher corporate tax rate (which will have been cut down already from 35 percent) would be worth more to those middle-class parents than the value of the cut to their payroll taxes.
We now know that raising the corporate tax rate slightly is no big deal—because the congressional Republicans raised it to 21 percent in order to cut the top marginal income-tax rate for those making over $600,000. One senses a pattern.
The congressional Republicans are having trouble selling tax cuts to the middle class, because the middle-class tax cuts are included only grudgingly as a sweetener for the business and high-earner tax cuts that are the real goal of the Republican congressional leadership. (One should note that Senators Marco Rubio and Mike Lee have been exceptions and have fought for an increased child tax credit in order to reduce the tax liability of working, wage-earner parents.)
The elite Republicans haven’t forgotten. They have changed. The Republican Party of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan is no longer the party of Ronald Reagan and the middle-class tax revolts of the 1970s.
And this is why we can’t have nice things, or even nice people. Why do Americans turn to elderly socialists like Bernie Sanders, or clownish (or worse) populists like Trump and Roy Moore? It is because the best of the Republicans are wedded to a politically self-destructive view of the world. It is a view that sees Americans as either passengers (the middle class), parasites (the working class), or saviors (businessmen), and treats voters as marks to be taken down.
The best of the current Republicans (the Paul Ryans, the Ben Sasses, the Mitt Romneys) have certain common features that should be appealing to the electorate. They seem to have the home life of the family man. They have the discipline and diligence of the organization kid. They have the looks of the pretty boy. Yet the public still rejects them, because the voters find their ideas even more unpleasant than Donald Trump’s odious personality.
There are good reasons why our elite Republicans keep getting rejected. They still talk about tax cuts, but they think primarily of tax cuts for the highest earners. When they think they can get away with it, they disparage the idea of tax cuts for the middle class (much less for wage-earning parents). They pretend that the taxes paid by wage-earners don’t even exist. They mouth the Reaganite lift-all-boats rhetoric, but they act on a get-those-lucky-duckies agenda. Reagan’s party is being infected with the Romney Disease.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.