WASHINGTON – Some political moments are like an X-ray – revealing down to the bone.
Here were Senate Republicans, poised for their first (and only) real legislative victory of the year. Tax overhaul, they knew, would be their main shot at shaping public perceptions of the GOP in the Trump era. The bill they were in the process of passing was utterly typical of Republican economic thinking – large tax reductions for corporations, broad income-tax relief for individuals and an increase in the child tax credit (deductible against income taxes). None of this surprising in the least.
Which was a problem. Insofar as blue-collar voters in places such as Pennsylvania and Ohio delivered unified Republican government, you would think their economic needs and struggles might find some central, or at least symbolic, place in the Republican agenda. So when Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., proposed an amendment to make the child credit fully deductible against payroll taxes (which are the taxes actually paid by the working poor), it was clearly good policy and good politics.
The measure ended up getting only 20 Republican votes and was defeated 71-29.
How is this for symbolism: In their tax bill, Senate Republicans gave a break to private jet owners, but refused to increase the corporate rate by 0.94 percentage points to cover the cost of helping an estimated 12 million working-class families. The 20 percent corporate rate, Rubio and Lee were told, was sacrosanct, nonnegotiable – until the day after the vote, when President Trump conceded it may need to rise anyway. What drives many elected Republicans to embody every destructive, plutocratic stereotype? Do they really need to wear spats and a top hat every time they appear in public?
A good case can be made for reducing the corporate tax rate below the 24 percent global average, making America a more competitive place to do business. And it is true that, in a progressive tax system, broad tax cuts will go disproportionately to people who pay a lot of taxes in the first place. But Senate Republicans were presented with a clear and conservative way to both seem and be more favorable to working-class families. And they rejected it decisively.
It was foolish of Senate Republican leaders not to see the obvious political benefit of this change to a bill that is currently unpopular. It was offensive that most Senate Democrats voted against the amendment, on the crassly partisan theory that nothing they oppose should be improved. It is even a bit disappointing that Lee and Rubio did not threaten to blow up the tax bill – any two Republican senators plus Bob Corker, R-Tenn., an announced “no,” could have done so – in order to get their amendment included.
It is true enough that many liberals would only be happy with tax-code changes that are frankly redistributionist – designed to decrease inequality, even if overall economic growth were undermined. They think of the tax code as one way of addressing a structural injustice – the injustice of modern capitalism, which favors wealth over wages.
In contrast, compassionate conservatives (the few of us who remain) view healthy, sustained economic growth as a moral achievement – justly rewarding effort and enterprise and allowing society to be more generous to those in genuine need. (What poor and stagnant nation would undertake Medicaid or the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief?) But this is different than saying that economic freedom is always identical to the common good. Particularly in an increasingly high-skill economy, it requires positive effort to (1) train as many people as possible for economic participation, (2) ensure that lower skill work can still result in a dignified life (through measures such as the earned income tax credit), (3) encourage the stability of families (through, for example, the child credit) and (4) increase the scale of private and religious efforts to meet society’s desperate human needs (addiction, homelessness, etc.).
The goal of a compassionate conservatism is not economic leveling but social solidarity – an economic system that allows everyone to live lives of dignity. On the best historical and economic evidence, this is achieved through a mixed economy – allowing the freedom to create wealth, but depending on government and civil society to humanize an imperfect human system (as all human systems are imperfect).
The balance here is not always easy to determine. But most elected Republicans don’t seem moved or motivated by either equality or solidarity – at least if the damning defeat of Lee-Rubio is any indication.
Michael Gerson’s email address is email@example.com.