So, it seems that Republicans are responding to the devastating defeat in Alabama – which is part of a sustained pattern of underperformance in special elections, demonstrating that bad polls reflect reality, not bad polling, by … doubling down on a massively unpopular tax plan, whose main focus is on cutting corporate taxes.
In fact, they’re rushing to jam the thing through before Doug Jones can be certified, in a stunning act of hypocrisy from the same people who demanded that Obamacare wait until Scott Brown was seated and held up a Supreme Court seat for a year. It’s outrageous. But it also looks like really bad politics, especially given what we know is coming: calls next year for cuts in popular social programs, because of a deficit Republicans just voted to explode. So what are they thinking?
I don’t know for sure, but I’d suggest three possible factors in this mad rush.
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First, Republicans may be suffering from an officeholder’s version of the Pundit’s Fallacy: “belief that what a politician needs to do to improve his or her political standing is do what the pundit wants substantively.” For example, “Obama can win the midterms by endorsing Bowles-Simpson,” which the vast majority of voters never heard of.
Today’s Republicans are apparatchiks, who have spent their whole lives inside an intellectual bubble in which cutting taxes on corporations and the rich is always objective No. 1. Their party used to know that it won elections despite its economic program, not because of it – that the whole game was to win by playing on social issues, national security, and above all on racial antagonism, then use the win to push fundamentally unpopular economic policies. But over the years the party has seemed increasingly out of touch with that reality, imagining that if only it preaches the gospel of supply-side economics loudly enough voters will be won over.
Second, the GOP may also be engaged in the fallacy of points on the board thinking – I’m taking the phrase from Rahm Emanuel, who believed that Obama could gain electoral capital simply by racking up legislative victories. The idea is that voters are impressed by your record of wins, or conversely that they’ll turn away if you don’t win enough.
The truth is that this strategy didn’t work at all for Obama, who won a lot of stuff in his first two years then got shellacked in the midterms. And think about the things that have been going wrong for Republicans in special elections: desertions by highly educated suburban voters, massive African-American turnout, weak turnout by rural whites. Which of these is likely to be improved by a massive, unpopular corporate tax cut? Still, the idea that you have to win something seems to have a grip on the GOP, and of course especially on our childlike president.
Finally, for some significant number of Republicans we may be seeing what I’d call the “K Street end game.” Suppose you’re a GOP Congresscritter representing an only moderately Republican district, say in New York or California – and you see growing evidence of a huge Democratic wave next year, with election results so far suggesting something like a 15-point swing. What do you do?
Well, you could say, “Gee, I’d better buck the party line and show my independence to win over swing voters.” But how likely is that to work? How many people even know how their representative votes?
Or you could say, “Well, I guess I’ll be looking for a lobbying job/think tank position/commentator role on Fox News in 2019” – in which case your mission in what remains of your congressional career is to keep donors and the party machine happy, never mind the voters.
Now, all of these stories work better at explaining the House than at explaining senators like John McCain or Susan Collins, who are working quickly to destroy all the good will they won by taking a stand on health care. Still, I think it makes sense to tell these stories about what the Republican Party is doing in general on taxes.
And while Democrats should and will fight this attempt to ram tax cuts through with the vote of a lame-duck senator, if I were a Democratic strategist looking toward next November I’d be looking at current Republican moves and thinking, “Make my day.”