Opinion

Democrats are fiddling while Republicans prepare to burn down Rome

The party's moderates would rather lose forever than raise taxes on the donor class

Rep. Liz Cheney is all but assured of being removed Wednesday from her third-ranking post in the leadership of the House Republican caucus. Her fate is punishment for not supporting Donald Trump — she is only the most high-profile victim of a sweeping party purge of Trump critics, particularly those who refused to go along with his effort to overturn the election and install himself as president, first through legal chicanery and then through a putsch.

Republicans have made their intentions crystal clear. The party is now fully a Trump personality cult and no opposition can be brooked. Senator Lindsey Graham straight-up admitted to Bloomberg that "If you tried to run [Trump] out of the party, he'd take half the party with him." As Greg Sargent argues at The Washington Post, the groundwork has now been laid for Republicans gerrymandering and vote-suppressing their way to control of the House, and thence to stealing the 2024 election and very possibly setting up a one-party state.

Yet many Democrats are bizarrely blasé about the dire threat both their party and their country is facing. Senate moderates Krysten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia have thus far refused to abolish or reform the Senate filibuster, which will be a necessity for passing any voting rights protections that would allow for fair elections. Many others are queasy about the tax hikes packaged with Biden's infrastructure and welfare plans, which are vital for protecting Democrats' majority but harmful to their donor class. These moderates' timidity and corruption might well spell the end of the American republic.

The Washington Post reports that numerous Democrats are getting cold feet about Biden's proposed tax hikes. Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.) is worried they'll hurt vulnerable Democrats in the 2022 midterms. Manchin thinks a 28 percent corporate tax rate is too high. Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and Mark Warner of Virginia are apparently working on an alternative to Biden's international tax proposal that is more similar to what Trump signed in 2017. Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey thinks Biden's proposed capital gains tax hike is too high. Rep. Cindy Axne of Iowa is skeptical of closing the wildly unfair "stepped-up basis" tax loophole for ultra-wealthy heirs.

The political reasoning here is ludicrous. For one thing, several polls now have shown that Biden's infrastructure bill polls better when messaging about the included tax hikes on the rich are included. He also promised to hike taxes on the rich during the campaign, and studies have shown that presidents tend to be punished for not fulfilling their campaign promises. More broadly, doing so would fit with the Democrats' brand as being the party that (supposedly) stands with the middle and working class against the ultra-rich.

The oligarch class is broadly unpopular in the abstract. Jeff Bezos spending $500 million on a super-yacht complete with a second smaller yacht (because the first one doesn't have space for a helipad, somehow) while 37 percent of Americans could not cover an unexpected $400 expense out of pocket indicates an economy that is wildly out of whack. What's more, both previous Democratic presidents hiked taxes on the rich in their first terms, and both cruised to re-election.

More important still is what this tax money is for — compensation for Biden's infrastructure and welfare plans. I have my criticisms of these plans, but doing something like this must be a key part of Democrats' strategy for the next few elections. As Biden himself has argued, it is vital to pass some big spending packages both as concrete accomplishments that help a lot of people, and as broader support measures for the economy. The last jobs report was far weaker than expected, which may indicate that full recovery will be more than a year off.

Even if it's a small political risk to raise taxes on the rich, leaving the economy in poor shape is absolutely certain to harm Democratic fortunes badly. That's exactly how the party flushed its last House majority down the toilet in 2010. And besides, if these tax hikes are no good, fine — who cares, just borrow and increase the deficit. There is no sign the U.S. is anywhere close to running out of borrowing capacity, and anyway, as historian Adam Tooze argues there is actually less reason to pay for infrastructure investments than other types of spending, since in theory they should more than pay for themselves with increased output.

But it turns out many Democrats don't want to do that either — Biden among them. "I don't want to raise any taxes, but I don't want to put stuff on the debt, either," Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) told The Wall Street Journal. We've "got to get back to managing the size of our debt compared to the size of our economy," Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) told Axios. Passing big spending bills without pay-fors would also require getting rid of the filibuster — again, apparently a non-starter among key votes.

It simply beggars belief to think these Democrats are earnestly concerned that modestly hiking taxes on corporations and ultra-wealthy heirs, or axing the filibuster, will doom their re-election campaigns. The only thing that could possibly explain why so many Democrats are dead-set on repealing Trump's cap on state and local tax deductions, 56 percent of the benefits of which will flow to the top one percent, is corruption. They are listening to rich donors and lobbyists, and/or keeping one eye on their future career prospects. Voting to raise taxes will infuriate the wealthy and well-connected, and cushy post-office buckraking careers doing consulting or speeches will not be forthcoming for lawmakers who do not toe the oligarch line.

So unless something changes, the swing vote Democrats who will decide whether the party can pass anything so long as it holds the majority in Congress — which could vanish at any time if one of the nine senators in states where they would be replaced by Republican governors dies — aren't going to allow voting rights protections to pass, or tax hikes on the rich, or popular programs to be paid for with borrowing. They're facing the biggest threat to America's democratic institutions since 1860, and they are still wringing their handkerchiefs and trying to save the pet loopholes of their paymasters.

The bleak irony of this attitude is that it is hellishly risky even in terms of plush lobbying careers for liberal sellouts. If Republicans succeed in their next attempt to overthrow democracy, there will be no reason whatsoever for corporations to bribe, er, I mean, hire corrupt liberal ex-politicians. The main reason Amazon hired Jay Carney was surely his close connections to Joe Biden — a sort of insurance policy against a future Democratic president (which remarkably seems not to have worked). Under permanent Republican rule, that kind of investment will be pointless.

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