Why Are Republicans Pushing Such an Unpopular Tax Bill?

Some of you might remember that in a news conference after George W. Bush won re-election in 2004, he said, “I earned capital in this campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.” It became clear almost immediately that he meant to follow through with partial privatization of Social Security. But it didn’t take long for that endeavor to be put to rest.

It soon became apparent that it would be a tough sell. Within weeks, observers noticed that the more the President talked about Social Security, the more support for his plan declined. According to the Gallup organization, public disapproval of President Bush’s handling of Social Security rose by 16 points from 48 to 64 percent–between his State of the Union address and June.

By early summer the initiative was on life support, with congressional Democrats uniformly opposed and Republicans in disarray. After Hurricane Katrina inundated what remained of the President’s support, congressional leaders quietly pulled the plug. By October, even the President had to acknowledge that his effort had failed.

That is interesting to keep in mind as Republicans barrel ahead with their tax bill, regardless of these kinds of poll numbers.

Forty-seven percent of those surveyed said they disapprove of the similar bills passed by the House and Senate, the Monmouth University poll released Monday said. Only 26 percent of respondents said they approve, while 19 percent had no opinion and 8 percent wanted to wait to draw a conclusion until they saw a final bill…

Here are some of its other findings:

Among Republicans polled, 55 percent approve of the bill…Only 20 percent of independents approve, while 53 percent disapprove.

Fifty percent believe their taxes will go up, 14 percent say their tax burden will fall and 25 percent think it will stay about the same.

That has a lot of pundits wondering why Republicans don’t do what Bush did on Social Security privatization: pull back from the abyss of a bill that has the lowest level of public support of “any major piece of legislation enacted in the past three decades.”

I would suggest that it is important to take a bigger picture look at what Trump and the Republicans have been doing this year. In addition to this horrendous tax bill, they tried to repeal Obamacare—despite the damage it would do to their own constituencies. For a while now, Trump has been demonstrating that he is more interested in revving up his base than in expanding his support. For example, take a look at this from a speech last week:

Coming as that did on the heels of African American mobilization in the Alabama special election, Greg Sargent noted this:

Now that Republicans hold only a 51-49 seat Senate majority, Democrats need to flip only two seats in 2018 to win control. The two GOP-held Senate seats that Democrats have the best chance at winning are in Nevada (Dean Heller) and Arizona (the retiring Jeff Flake).

And both of those states have lots of Latino voters in them.

One could almost imagine that these folks are actually doing everything they can to lose their majorities in the 2018 midterms, because a rational person would be trying to figure out how to reach out to immigrants and Latinos in states like Nevada, Arizona and Texas.

This is where I think Kevin Drum’s explanation is interesting. He starts by pointing to the Republican Southern Strategy following passage of the civil rights laws in the 1960’s, which was a way to leverage the white vote. That was followed by race-based gerrymandering, the use of wedge issues to mobilize white evangelicals and Fox News fear mongering about immigrants and black crime. Then came voter suppression and more gerrymandering. All of that wasn’t enough to stop the election of Barack Obama. But just when some in the party were saying that it was time to reach out to people of color (the 2012 GOP autopsy, for example), along came Donald Trump.

Donald Trump pushed the envelope further than even the hardest-core Republican had dared in decades, appealing all but openly to white voters and shamelessly demonizing minorities. The Republican establishment didn’t support him initially, but he gained the nomination anyway so they made their peace. And he won. And Republicans won the Senate. And they held onto the House. Against all odds, they controlled the entire federal government.

Drum assumes that Republicans know that was their last hoorah. They’re going for broke now because they they’ve stretched the white vote as far as it will go and face losing control of the levers of power for a decade or more. Joshua Holland sees the situation similarly.

Looking at the bigger picture suggests that they’ve internalized the “emerging Democratic majority” thesis: They know that the electorate is becoming more diverse, more urban, and better educated. They understand that their core demographic—married whites who identify as Christians—is in rapid decline. This is what animates their relentless efforts to suppress the vote of typically Democratic constituencies, and it explains their rush to pass a massive rewrite of the tax code that’s historically unpopular.

While it all makes some sense, especially from a liberal perspective, it’s hard to imagine people with these kinds of egos being willing to admit this to themselves consciously. I suspect there is still some residual from recent electoral victories that looms in their minds and, combined with the epistemic bubble created by right wing news, leaves them feeling immune to what the polls indicate is coming. Steve Benen describes it this way:

Thanks to a combination of gerrymandering, voter-suppression techniques, and a seemingly endless amount of campaign contributions, which can be used to tell voters the GOP’s tax bill is the opposite of what it actually is, Republicans may have convinced themselves they can win elections, en masse, whether voters approve of their records or not.

Keep in mind that someone like Mitch McConnell was able to get away with things like obstructing anything Democrats tried to do in the midst of the Great Recession. He was also successful in stopping the Supreme Court nominee of a sitting president from even getting a hearing. Despite strategies like that, his party maintains the majority in both houses of congress and won the presidency in 2016. I’m not prepared to assume that a man like that has the foresight to see that his party’s days in the majority are numbered.

It could be that Paul Ryan is preparing to call it quits because he sees what’s coming. But for the majority of Republicans, I honestly think that they not only believe in their own righteous ideology but are blissfully unaware of how their extremism is alienating so much of the country. Basically, the Republicans are Michael (played by Jeff Goldblum) in The Big Chill.


Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.