Republicans' next poisonous priority
Once they pass their staggeringly unpopular tax bill, they're going to turn to an even more hated issue: safety net cuts
Prepare yourself for this picture. If and when Republicans pass the final version of their tax bill through Congress, in each house a joyous whoop will rise up as the presiding officer reads the results. When the cheers die down they will be replaced by laughter, amid handshakes and backslaps and maybe even a hug or two, all Republicans celebrating their glorious triumph. Before long they'll troop to the White House for a Rose Garden celebration with President Trump, their cheeks still flush with excitement, knowing they've not only fulfilled their most profound purpose but staved off the political cataclysm they so desperately feared.
That's what they'll be telling themselves, anyway. But will it be true? And where will they go then?
A gigantic tax cut for corporations and the wealthy has been the single greatest priority for the GOP at this moment of complete control of Washington, the one promise they absolutely positively must keep. Other failures or setbacks could be overcome, but this they shall do, no matter what. It's why they came to Washington in the first place, and they've convinced themselves that it is the one thing that can save them from what looks like an impending disaster in 2018. Fail to cut taxes, they believe, and their base will turn from them in scorn, not bothering to turn out to vote and allowing those dastardly Democrats to seize one or even both houses of Congress.
If and when they succeed, they will tell the public: Behold the riches we have bestowed upon you. Is this not the greatest gift you have ever received from government? Can you not feel the job creation happening all around you? Is your faith in us not restored?
To that, the public is likely to respond: Huh?
Because the truth is that the tax bill is already a disappointment, even though we don't yet know its final form. Democrats have succeeded in convincing Americans that it favors the wealthy, an argument that draws strength from the fact that it's completely true. Republicans' fantastical claims about how the tax bill will pay for itself once it causes a supernova of growth are being met with skepticism. Worst of all, the bill will actually raise taxes on half of Americans by 2027 (if Republicans accept the Senate version). Which goes a long way toward explaining why it's one of the most unpopular pieces of legislation in decades, beaten out only by their failed attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
That suggests that despite their inevitable celebration, passing this tax bill may not offer Republicans the political deliverance they seek. But that's okay, because after this is done, they'll move on to other, even more popular legislation. Like slashing the safety net.
That is indeed what they're going to try to do, by the way. It will be justified by the enormous deficits their tax bill is creating (how handy!), and they already seem to have convinced President Trump that when they go after things like Medicaid, food stamps, and disability payments, it amounts to "welfare reform." That's even though actual "welfare" (now called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) has been whittled to such a shadow of its former self that not even Republicans care much about "reforming" it. But given the legislative skill they've shown so far and the inevitable backlash, I wouldn't count on any of that passing.
So what do Republicans have to offer the voting public that's actually popular? Not much. Once you get past the tax cuts, their agenda is mostly punitive and cruel, unless you're a favored industry being liberated from the crushing burden of government oversight (fear not, Wall Street, your days of oppression will soon end). They've counted on being able to answer the "What have you done for us lately?" question with the proud cry of "Tax cuts!", but if that doesn't generate applause, they'll be left without much else.
Meanwhile, the next election is less than a year away. As the results this month in Virginia showed, Democrats are angry and motivated, not only by what Republicans in Congress are doing but above all by the occupant of the Oval Office, who each and every day gives the opposition more reasons to be mad. He can't help his own party much; with approval ratings in the 30s, the only Republican candidates who'd want Trump to come campaign for them are those who hail from areas so deeply red that they have no chance of losing.
As thin as their list of legislative accomplishments is, Republicans will (probably) at least be able to say that they succeeded on their highest priority. But if you've done that and the public wasn't too impressed, you need something else to offer them. Right now it looks like they don't have much.