The GOP's fractal incompetence problem
The tax bill winding its way through the House is an absolute mess. People like to focus on the big-ticket narrative that the bill raises taxes on the middle class to cut taxes on the rich. Which is true, and bad. But it actually undersells the bill's badness. The proposal includes lots of bizarre provisions, like eliminating the adoption tax credit. Many of its provisions are written as temporary in order to meet arbitrary budget windows.
The biggest problem with this bill is that it tries to do everything. It wants to cut taxes on the rich. It wants to cut taxes on corporations. It wants to cut taxes on the middle class. It also wants to look semi-fiscally responsible. It wants to simplify the tax code, but it doesn't want to get rid of too many popular tax breaks. It wants to reward and punish various interest groups. The fundamental problem with this approach is that, in policy, there are tradeoffs. And in politics, when you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one.
This was also the approach of the various attempts at repealing and replacing ObamaCare, which all proved doomed for that very reason. It's also the approach of the Senate tax bill, which largely overlaps with the House bill but is also its very own precious flavor of dog's breakfast. It's the GOP's general approach to governing in the Trump era.
But Republican dysfunction is fractal. Every problem is caused by an even deeper problem.
The GOP's bills are bad. They're bad because they try to do a bunch of incompatible things all at the same time. But let's go down one further level.
Why do they try to do that? Because Republicans aren't making choices. This might sound trite, but making choices is the alpha and omega of the art of politics: In a world full of constraints, the means to achieving results is to decide which priorities will get done — and, therefore, which ones won't.
But let's go down another level. Why are Republicans unable to choose?
Because they don't have a leader. The necessity of choice in politics is why political movements cannot self-organize and need leaders; real choices, which are always costly, cannot be achieved by consensus. The art of political leadership, then, lies in making prudent choices and then implementing them, through some combination of public rhetoric, private persuasion, carrots and sticks to ensure that the various stakeholders either support or don't doom your plan. It is very tricky! It's also necessary to have someone do it. Within the Republican Party, there is no such person at the moment.
The most likely candidate, Donald Trump, is unable to rise to the occasion because he lacks the necessary self-control and understanding of the issues. The second most likely candidate, Paul Ryan, is unwilling to fill the leadership vacuum left by Trump, for reasons known only to him.
Yet leadership vacuums can be shockingly easy to fill. Of his takeover of France, Napoleon famously commented that all he had to do was to pick up the crown that was lying in the gutter. Plenty of senators and influential members of the House could fill it by proposing their own alternative visions and trying to get them implemented, which is their job. Tom Cotton has taken steps in this direction when it comes to immigration. Mike Lee and Marco Rubio are also candidates; their insistence on including a large child tax credit in the tax bill is quite laudable. But while this represents an implicit vision of what the GOP's tax vision should be, it is not an explicit one. Ivanka might be able to fill that role! Like him or not, Stephen Bannon definitely tried to do it, and got expelled as a result. The crown is in the gutter.
So why won't anyone pick it up? To answer, we have to go one level deeper.
The leadership vacuum is there because nobody knows or agrees what the Republican Party is for. I don't mean "what it is for" in terms of being for or against various policies, but at a more fundamental level: For what purpose does the Republican Party exist? Is it to promote the interests of private business owners? Or the interests of America's culturally conservative working class? Or does it exist to promote policies inspired by traditional Christianity? Does it exist to shrink the size of government and expand individual liberty?
Some people around Trump have answers to these questions, but Trump himself does not. Paul Ryan has answers to these questions, but he realizes that they are doomed politically, is unwilling to change his answers, and is therefore trying to mix his answers with other answers, which isn't working.
So why doesn't anybody have a good answer? Let's go another level down.
The reason nobody has a good answer to these questions is that nobody asked them, or nobody listened to the few voices that were asking them. The GOP has been suffering from an identity crisis since at least the second half of the Bush 43 administration, and arguably since the end of the Cold War, when anti-communism stopped being a unifying reason for the GOP's existence.
But Bill Clinton's foibles and later the Sept. 11 attacks preoccupied the party. Then Barack Obama's unpopularity gave the GOP enough victories to pretend that things were alright. Mitt Romney's narrow loss was followed by the party's infamous autopsy report, which was not a real exercise in soul-searching, let alone soul-finding. And because nobody in the establishment asked existential questions about the party, nobody paid attention to the growing disconnect between the GOP's base and its elites which made Trump possible. The GOP has been at war with itself for years without admitting it.
"Ideas have consequences" is a famous conservative motto. The GOP's self-immolation shows the absence of ideas can be very consequential as well.