Imagine you’re a Republican who saw Barack Obama’s 2008 victory as an opportunity for the GOP to re-examine its priorities. The Iraq War and the financial crisis had contributed to a stunning rebuke from voters, and it seemed as though Democrats could be in power for a generation. Now was the time for the Republican Party to reinvent itself, ideally by doing more to advance the interests of working-class families.
Scott Brown won a special election in Massachusetts, and Republicans retook the House in 2010. Never mind. We’re good. Nothing has to change.
Then Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election, in part because the domestic agenda advanced by Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan proved less than inspiring. It turns out voters aren’t pumped about the idea of rolling back funding for nursing homes. Looks like we’ll have to go back to the drawing board after all. One possibility: Keep the exact same policies but translate them into Spanish. Another: Maybe do more for nonrich people.
Republicans did pretty well in 2014, holding onto their majority in the House and capturing the Senate. So I guess we didn’t have to change anything after all. Phew.
It’s 2016, and this whole Trump thing is going to be a disaster. Batten down the hatches!
He won? Um, OK. Donald Trump seems to think the Republican Party should … do more for working-class families, I guess? Do we need to do that now? I guess we should stop fixating on cutting taxes for rich people? Wait—am I getting this right? Trump does want to cut taxes for rich people? It’s possible he doesn’t know what he’s doing, or maybe he’s just easily confused. But let’s roll with it. Awesome. Nothing has to change.
Far from overthrowing the GOP elite, Trump’s combustible blend of ignorance, incompetence, and laziness has actually strengthened the hand of Republicans who want the party to serve as the political concierge to the nation’s most shortsighted billionaires. When Trump and his erstwhile consigliere Steve Bannon talked a big game about making the GOP the party of the working class, it rattled the party’s establishment. When it became clear that their populism amounted to little more than picking fights with NFL players and rolling with Roy Moore, the donor class could breathe a sigh of relief. Donorism was here to stay, only this time it would be lightly breaded and fried to give it an outer crust of ethnic chauvinism.
What has this meant in practice? In the hours before Doug Jones’ victory in the Alabama special election, Republicans in the House and Senate were busy hammering out a compromise tax bill. GOP lawmakers have been itching to do something along these lines for years. Finally, they get to govern! One of their brilliant ideas: Cut corporate taxes by slightly less than they’d been fantasizing about for lo these many years.
Why? Was it because they realized cutting the corporate tax rate so deeply was not the most cost-effective way to boost economic growth? Was it so they could, say, finance a bigger tax cut for low- and middle-income households—the kind of policy you’d expect populist Donald Trump to loudly champion? Nope. They did it so they can lower the top tax rate from 39.6 percent to 37 percent on individuals earning more than $500,000 and couples earning more than $1 million. Apparently, cutting the top tax rate was way more important than ensuring that low- and middle-income families with kids can get a decent-sized tax cut.
You might be thinking to yourself: Do Republicans have a death wish? Looking back at the last decade, during which the party has forsaken opportunity after opportunity to address the needs of lower- and middle-class voters, the only logical answer is: It sure looks that way. When Paul Ryan declares that we really need to start cutting Medicare and Medicaid just days after the Senate passes a massive tax cut for high-income households, is he really telling us that he’s ready to retire to Kenosha? I wouldn’t rule it out.
Needless to say, Roy Moore didn’t lose in Alabama because of the ongoing negotiations to cut rich people’s taxes; his alleged predatory behavior toward teens was probably a bigger deal. Note, however, that despite years of apparent teen-chasing, Moore still came extremely close to winning the special election. It’s hard not to conclude that there was more to his narrow defeat than his creepiness—that the Trump presidency and unified Republican control of Congress hasn’t left voters, including conservative voters, feeling as though Republicans are especially solicitous of their interests.
At long last, the moment may have arrived when Republicans who want the party to be more responsive to working- and middle-class voters (who just for the record, represent a large majority of voters) finally gain the upper hand. The GOP just lost a Senate seat in Alabama. Surely, this must be the moment when Republicans decide to change course.
Yeah … probably not. I promise you, Moore’s defeat will get chalked up to his personal foibles. The fact that the GOP brand has taken a beating in Alabama and elsewhere will be discounted and dismissed. The fact that the GOP tax bill is profoundly unpopular will be brushed aside because lots of wonderful things are unpopular, after all. My guess is that it’s going to take losing the 2018 midterms really, really badly to start dislodging the forces of zombie Reaganism from the Republican Party.
But there’s a chance, albeit a small one, that at least some Republicans will start changing course now, if only in the interest of self-preservation. One way to do that would be to push back against lowering the top tax rate and revisiting the Rubio–Lee amendment. If Republicans in Congress get behind something like Rubio–Lee, it will convince me that they don’t want to set themselves on fire in tribute to some ancient evil deity. If not, well, every ancient evil deity deserves its day, I suppose. Let the fire burn.