Stop me if you’ve heard this before. A G.O.P. presidential candidate loses the popular vote, but somehow ends up in the White House anyway. Despite his dubious legitimacy, his allies in Congress take advantage of his election to ram through a huge tax cut that blows up the budget deficit while disproportionately benefiting the wealthy. While the big bucks go to the big incomes, however, the tax bill does throw some crumbs at the middle class, and Republicans try to sell the bill as a boon to working families.
So far this account applies equally to George W. Bush and Donald Trump. But then the story takes a turn. The Bush sales job was effective: While the 2001 tax cut wasn’t overwhelmingly popular, more people approved than disapproved, and it provided the G.O.P. with at least a modest political boost. But the Trump tax cut was unpopular from the start — in fact, less popular than past tax hikes.
And this tax cut doesn’t seem to be winning more support over time. Most Americans say they don’t see any positive effect on their paychecks. Public approval of the tax cut seems, if anything, to be falling rather than rising. And Republicans have pretty much stopped even mentioning the bill on the campaign trail.
Which raises the question: Why doesn’t snake oil sell like it used to?
In the past, deficit hypocrisy was an important weapon in the G.O.P. political arsenal. Both parties talked about fiscal responsibility, but only Democrats practiced it, actually paying for policy initiatives like Obamacare. Yet Democrats were punished for doing the right thing — remember “they’re taking $500 billion from Medicare”? — while Republicans seemingly paid no price for their cynicism. Voters focused on the extra money in their pockets, ignoring the long-run consequences of big tax cuts for the rich.
So why is this time different?
I don’t think it’s the specifics of tax policy. Bush and Trump both pushed through big tax cuts for the rich with what amounted to loss-leader cuts for some middle-class families. If you look at estimates of the distribution of their tax cuts by family income, Bush and Trump’s look fairly similar.
The political background is, however, quite different. For one thing, in 2000 the U.S. had a budget surplus, and debt had been falling relative to G.D.P., making concerns about long-run fiscal impacts seem remote. In fact, Alan Greenspan infamously argued that a tax cut was needed to keep America from paying off its debt too fast.
By contrast, the U.S. ran large deficits in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and the people who yelled loudest about an imminent debt crisis were the same people who pushed through a $1.5 trillion tax cut. And at least some voters seem to have noticed, and even made the connection between tax cuts and Republican attempts to undermine Medicare and Medicaid.
There are also, I suspect, a couple of Trump-specific issues involved.
Bush, you may remember, ran on his tax cuts from the beginning. Trump, on the other hand, pretended to be a populist — he even claimed that he would raise taxes on the rich — and waited until taking office to reveal himself as just another reverse-Robin Hood Republican. This has to be creating some credibility problems.
Also, while the Bush administration was systematically deceptive in the way it made its case for tax cuts (and the Iraq war, and environmental policy, and. …), its deceptions generally involved selective and misleading presentations of the facts rather than flat-out lies. Trump and his officials can’t be bothered with such subtlety; they just lie, blatantly, about everything. Again, some voters seem to have noticed.
One thing in particular I suspect is registering with voters at some level, even if they don’t know much about the specifics, is the ludicrous optimism of Trump economic promises. Republican claims about the benefits of tax cuts aren’t just out of line with independent estimates; they’re so far out of the ballpark as to be in a different universe.
Anyway, the bottom line is that tax cuts just don’t sell like they used to. Which leaves you wondering what, exactly, Republicans have left to run on.
True, tax cuts probably had less to do with past G.O.P. successes than many party activists seem to imagine. Other factors were often much more important. But those other factors also aren’t what they used to be.
I mean, claims to be the defenders of family values have lost their punch partly because the public has become far more socially tolerant — Americans now support same-sex marriage by a two-to-one majority! — and partly because the current resident of the White House may be the worst family man in America. Flag-waving claims to be more patriotic than Democrats worked well for Reagan and Bush, but are much more problematic for a G.O.P. that looks more and more like the party of Putin.
Still, Republicans needn’t despair. After all, they’ll always have racism to fall back on. And with the tax cut fizzling, I predict that we’ll be seeing a lot of implicit — even explicit — appeals to racism in the months ahead.
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