What Are They Thinking?

House Speaker Paul Ryan, in March 2017, trying to explain the Republican healthcare bill.

Republicans — President Donald Trump and his colleagues in Congress — put forward two major legislative initiatives this year. First, came healthcare — an attempt to repeal Obamacare, which has become increasingly popular, and replace it with a travesty of legislation that no one liked. Fortunately, for Republicans, they failed to secure the votes to pass their unpopular bill. Then, the GOP tackled so-called tax reform with a bill the public interprets as a boondoggle for the wealthy. Imagine: A tax cut no one likes (except corporate leaders and the very wealthy)! Unfortunately, for Republicans, and the majority of tax-paying U.S. citizens, for that matter, the party managed to ram the tax bill through Congress.

What are Republicans thinking? Assuming, that is, that the mashed up bills on healthcare and taxes — written hastily (at one point, the tax bill upon which the Senate voted had illegible, handwritten modifications in the margins) and with no input from Democrats, the public, or affected interest groups — reflect thinking. A better interpretation of what the Republicans tried to do on healthcare and succeeded in doing on taxes is that Republicans reacted reflexively and did what they said they would do — without any real thought about the complexities of the nation’s healthcare system and tax code. In other words, the GOP acted to satisfy its wealthy constituents and donors.

President Trump, surrounded by Republican legislators, celebrating passage of the GOP tax bill.

Oh, and by the way, Republicans surreptitiously slipped into the tax bill a repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate — the part of the system most unpopular but necessary to make healthcare insurance work. Trump for once told the truth when he boasted, “I shouldn’t say this, but we essentially repealed Obamacare.” No, he probably should not have said it since premiums are likely to rise dramatically in the future, for which Republicans will be blamed. Health insurance, whatever is left of it, is now Trumpcare, and the GOP owns it.

Consider this: The GOP heads into the 2018 midterm elections saddled with an unpopular president who has historically low approval ratings, ownership of a broken healthcare system, and authorship of a tax bill largely beneficial only to the wealthy. That is not a recipe for electoral success, and Republican leaders know it, especially following the stunning November results in Virginia and the recent special election in Alabama, which placed a Democrat in the Senate from one of the most reliably red states. As House Speaker Paul Ryan said recently, “I see a historical trend cutting against us.… We’ve got the wind at our face.” Or, as a GOP operative said graphically and anonymously (for obvious reasons), “I think we’re totally fucked.”

Republicans evidently are gambling that passing the tax bill will shield them from being drowned in a wave election next year. One part of the gamble is to bet on the illusion of motion, that is, it is better to do something than nothing, even if the something is terrible, horrible, rotten. If Republicans stand for anything, it is tax cuts, so passing a bill that they have labeled (deceptively) tax reform, gives the sense to the Republican base that the party is delivering on its promise. At the same time, the GOP is betting that its cynical ploy of giving most of the middle class a temporary, albeit, small tax cut will pay dividends next November. To satisfy budgetary rules in the Senate, the bill eliminates tax cuts for the middle class, but not for corporations and the wealthy, after 2025. Republican leaders promise to extend the tax cuts, but most voters are savvy enough to understand that one Congress cannot guarantee action by another. In any event, a small, temporary tax cut may not assuage voter anger over the huge giveaways to people and corporations with no need for more money.

Republicans also hope voters do not realize — at least before November 2018 (and, perhaps, Trump’s reelection bid in 2020) — that the massive increase in the national debt caused by the tax cuts will require huge cuts to entitlements and other programs beneficial to the poor and middle class. Indeed, for many conservative Republicans — Paul Ryan, for instance — that is one of the points of cutting taxes: Drive up the deficit so as to provide a rationale for cutting Medicare and Social Security. Ryan has already vowed to slash entitlements next year, and President Trump, who ran for the presidency promising to protect Medicare and Social Security, says, “We’re going to go into welfare reform.”

And, who knows, but party leaders may really believe the nonsense they spew about tax cuts unleashing a huge economic boom. The historical evidence does not back up that belief, and virtually all economists argue that tax cuts do not lead to a surge in economic growth. But, why should Republicans believe economic experts when the Trump administration informed the Centers for Disease Control that “evidence-based” and “science-based” are among the terms the agency should no longer use?

Democrats lost 47 House seats in 1966 because President Lyndon Johnson was unpopular.

Mostly, Republican leaders are betting that steady job growth, with unemployment at a 17-year low, and a booming stock market will trump the president’s unpopularity (and the party’s) and carry the GOP to victory in the midterm elections (or, at least, minimize losses). But, if history is any guide, a good economy does not overcome an unpopular president. In 1966, Lyndon Johnson’s approval rating was in the mid-40s with unemployment at a low level, and Democrats lost 47 House seats. In 2006, George W. Bush’s approval rating was below 40 percent (Trump territory) with low unemployment, and Republicans lost 30 seats in the House. Trump has defied historical expectations before, so make of these precedents what you will.

But, Trump is not on the ballot next year, and Republicans may find that his unpopularity drags them down at the ballot box (think low turnout due to lack of enthusiasm, for one). Add to that the party’s penchant to nominate unelectable candidates (Christine “I am not a witch” O’Donnell and Todd Akin, to name two), and Republicans may well find themselves in a minority on Capitol Hill in 2019.

Now, that is something to think about!

Posted December 22, 2017

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