Timing is everything. Do what will change everything when no one will notice, when the week’s events are over, when every newsroom in America is staffed by the weekend second-string crew. The wee small hours of Saturday morning are best. CNN is running travelogues all weekend – Anthony Bourdain in Altoona or wherever. MSNBC is running those endless back-to-back “life in prison” shows. The hard news programing won’t resume until Monday morning. There are two days of silence available. Use that silence. The Republicans used that silence:
The Senate narrowly passed Republicans’ tax reform legislation early Saturday morning with no Democratic support, following a marathon voting session overnight.
The bill, approved just before 2 a.m. in a 51-49 vote, next heads to conference, where House and Senate negotiators will work out the differences in their bills. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) was the only Republican to vote no on the measure. The House bill also passed with no Democratic support last month.
And that was that, and what the Republican had just passed was a mystery:
The legislation was officially released shortly before the vote, giving the public little time to examine the final details. Democrats were outraged, asking for more time to review the measure. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) claimed she was handed the amendments to be included in the bill not by any of her colleagues, but by a lobbyist. Lobbyists, her comment implied, saw the bill before Democratic members.
“Not a single member of this chamber has read the bill,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate floor before the bill passed. “It would be impossible.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who held a press conference after the bill’s passage, suggested Democrats were only concerned about the legislative process because they were losing.
Democrats were losing – they did lose – big time – and no one, not even the Republicans, knew all the details of what they were voting for. But the Republicans had to pass something or other. They have to have at least one first-year accomplishment, to prove that they can actually govern. The midterm elections come up next year. They can’t look like they can’t get one damned thing done. They also have been told by their donors to get this done, or not even one of them will have the funds to run any midterm campaign at all. That would end their careers. And Donald Trump has to have at least one first-year accomplishment, to prove that he can actually govern and not just tweet random angry nonsense. He was very happy about this, whatever it was. It was a tax bill. He promised to cut taxes. He had been told that this did just that. This would do. No one would notice the details, or could notice all the details, and he’s not concerned with details anyway. This was a win.
The New Yorker’s John Cassidy is one of those losers concerned with details, and Cassidy was a bit outraged:
On Friday, at lunchtime, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, announced that he had the votes to pass a bill, but what bill? A final version, which ran to more than five hundred pages, didn’t emerge until about 6 pm, and some of the pages had inserts scrawled in ink. “Trying to review the #GOPTaxScam,” Senator Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat, tweeted, “but they are making hand-written changes to brand new text as we speak – can anyone else read this?”
Durbin had a point – most doctors have better handwriting than what he held up on camera – but Cassidy points out the obvious:
To buy the votes of Senators Steve Daines, of Montana, and Ron Johnson, of Wisconsin, the GOP leadership agreed to further sweeten the pot for owners of unincorporated businesses who declare their profits as “pass through” income on their personal tax returns. Although Daines and Johnson claimed that they were trying to help owners of small businesses, the fact is that the richest one per cent of households receives more than half of all the pass-through income the economy generates. Donald Trump, who owns dozens of pass-through ventures, is a member of this group, and as a result of the bill he could see his marginal tax rate reduced from 39.6 per cent to below thirty per cent.
That will save him millions, as will the elimination of the Alternative Minimum Tax – something invented long ago to make sure that millionaires and billionaires, using every loophole in sight to pay nothing, as they do, pay at least something. The elimination of the Estate Tax – the Death Tax as Republicans call it – will save his family more than a billion dollars over the years. He can pass everything on to his heirs and they now won’t pay a dime in taxes, but Cassidy has more:
As tax experts raced through the final text, they discovered other giveaways to the one per cent – indeed, to the 0.001 per cent. They included the retention of the infamous carried-interest deduction, which allows hedge-fund managers and private-equity tycoons to pay a lower tax rate on their profits than the one many middle-class families face. During last year’s campaign, Trump promised to abolish this scandalous loophole, but that turned out to be one of his many fake pledges.
No one was supposed to notice that – that’s just one small detail of this giant bill – but some noticed the odd details in this thing:
Speaking on the Senate floor, Chuck Schumer and other Democrats drew attention to a last-minute amendment that appeared to exempt Hillsdale College, a Michigan institution that is supported by the conservative DeVos family, from taxes on colleges with large endowments. “The Senate is declining to a new low of chicanery,” Schumer said before moving a motion to adjourn until Monday, so that senators could have more time to consider the final bill. (The motion failed.) Bernie Sanders described the bill as “one of the great robberies in U.S. history because Republicans are looting the Treasury.”
That’s too general. Those massive new taxes on colleges with large endowments were aimed at the Ivy League schools – Harvard and Princeton and Yale – those places that churn out liberals. Hillsdale College doesn’t do that – and that matches eliminating the deduction on interest on student loans. Those loans will now be much more expensive – thus there will be fewer pesky well-educated liberals in the future. That also matches the provision that treats scholarships and stipends as ordinary income. A four-year free ride at Harvard might be worth two hundred thousand dollars. Any low-income high school kid that accepts that scholarship will suddenly be in the top tax bracket and have to pay the feds about eighty thousand dollars in income taxes, immediately. That kid, and his family, can’t do that – thus one less pesky well-educated liberal in the future.
The details matter, and Cassidy notes this:
Senator Susan Collins, in return for her yes vote, did extract one concession for households that aren’t members of the plutocracy: the final bill allowed homeowners to continue to deduct up to ten thousand dollars in state and local property taxes. But the bill also included the repeal of the individual mandate to purchase health-care insurance – a provision that would undo much of the good Collins did when she voted against the Republican health-care bill. According to the Congressional Budget Office, it would raise the number of uninsured Americans by thirteen million, and raise the premiums on individual plans by ten per cent. Using a tax bill to abolish the individual mandate amounts to a backdoor way of sabotaging Obamacare, and Collins, Murkowski, and McCain have yet to explain why they went along with it.
And there’s this:
The three so-called deficit hawks – Corker, Flake, and McCain – didn’t get anything to allay their concerns about fiscal stability. After the Senate parliamentarian ruled out Corker’s proposal for a “trigger mechanism” to raise taxes if the budget deficit hit a certain level, the Republican leadership dropped the idea of having a fallback method to restrain the deficit. According to the Joint Committee on Taxation, the official scorekeeper on Capitol Hill, the Senate bill would boost the deficit by a trillion dollars over the next ten years. To raise this money, the U.S. Treasury would have to issue another trillion dollars in debt, which would add to the nation’s already formidable borrowings. By 2027, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, the debt-to-GDP ratio, a key measure of fiscal solvency, will be approaching a hundred per cent.
Corker, to his credit, voted no. McCain, who, in 2001, voted against the Bush tax cuts on the grounds that they were fiscally irresponsible, voted yes this time without comment.
And there’s this:
Flake, in a statement explaining his assent, said that he had supported the idea of cutting corporate taxes for twenty years. He also claimed to have received assurances “from the Senate leadership and the Administration” to “enact fair and permanent protections for DACA recipients.” Since Flake is resigning next year and Trump has already called him “toast,” these assurances are worth about as much as a certificate from Trump University.
In keeping with what had gone before, the Senate eventually passed the bill in the dead of night, shortly before 2 a.m., when virtually nobody was watching. McConnell, secure in the knowledge that his side had won, didn’t bother to speak before the vote, which was 51–49 in favor of the bill.
There was nothing to say. No one was supposed to notice any of this, but Jonathan Chait argues that this is good for Democrats:
Of all the horrors Donald Trump has (and has yet to) inflict upon the republic, a huge tax cut for the rich was the most inevitable. But it is also the most easily reversible. Lifetime court appointments, carbon pollution, the degrading of democratic norms – all of these will prove difficult or impossible to undo, and leave costs deep into the future. The Trump tax cuts will not.
Indeed, the passage of the Trump tax cuts will help lay the groundwork for their undoing by increasing the chances Democrats regain control of Congress.
Follow the logic:
The moment Trump won his election last November he immediately forfeited his most potent advantages: He no longer had the deeply unpopular Hillary Clinton as his opponent, and he lost the advantage of Democratic complacency (which tends to build up over time when their party holds the White House.) An anti-Republican wave of some size was always inevitable. But Trump compounded the problem by surrendering another potent advantage: his brand as an economic populist loathed by the financial elite and planning to raise taxes on rich people like him.
Probably nothing has done more to erode Trump’s public standing than the consistently plutocratic cast of his domestic policy. The tax cut is the second-most-unpopular major piece of legislation in recorded history, behind only Trump’s other major domestic initiative, the health-care-repeal bill.
In short, Trump just threw away any claim to be an economic populist:
The bill is a cash grab by the wealthy, driven by the demands of the Republican donor base, and stuffed with targeted favors for insiders with lobbyists. Many more are sure to surface. The more they talk about it, the more Democrats can drive home the message that Trump’s economic populism was a fraud.
In the 2020 campaign, Democrats are inevitably going to propose new social spending. Reporters are inevitably going to ask them how they plan to pay for it. Republicans have given them an easy answer: Repeal the Trump tax cuts for the rich.
That might work, but that’s class warfare. Should the Democrats engage in something as crass as class warfare, even if the Republicans just fired their first massive salvo of that war with this tax bill? Millionaires and billionaires have feelings too, after all – as in Charlottesville, some of them are good people.
The Washington Post team of David Weigel and Robert Costa and Paul Kane argue that really doesn’t matter, because that “class war” is already in progress:
Democrats, united in their opposition, attacked the legislation as a “scam” passed to benefit wealthy donors and corporations. Republicans, promising years of wage and job growth once the bill becomes law, acknowledged that they face a difficult task convincing voters to have faith in a measure that received support from the GOP alone.
“They tend not to be popular,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), referring to bills passed with only one party’s support, told The Washington Post in an interview Saturday. “Generally speaking, in the beginning, people decide they don’t like it.”
The test for Republicans is whether they can convince voters that this legislation will put more money in their wallets – and the GOP leader is not sure whether they can do that in time for the 2018 elections.
So this is war, a war for hearts and minds, and the other side has its champion, heading for Ohio:
Just hours after the vote, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who ever since his unsuccessful bid for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination has been a leading voice pushing the party to the left on economic matters, demonstrated his intention to make the tax bill a marquee issue in 2018.
Sanders headed to the airport for an urgent trip across the Midwest, starting at Dayton’s Masonic Temple to try to rally 1,300 supporters against the bill, and telling them they could still defeat it when a conference committee is formed to combine differing House and Senate packages.
“The president was lying to you,” Sanders said. “This is class warfare, and we’re going to stand up and fight.”
He calls this what it is, class warfare, and the other side is all-in too:
In speeches, on social media and in TV ads, Republicans have described the legislation as the spark of a “middle-class miracle” that voters will see soon in their paychecks. The bill has largely unified the GOP, with even critics of the administration such as Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) rallying to pass it.
“It’s time to pound away on growth, and don’t depart from that message,” said Larry Kudlow, a conservative economist and informal Trump adviser. “The message of growth and jobs and wage is hitting. As long as the GOP stays on that, they’ll be fine.”
While Democrats said they would tell voters that Republicans had passed a regressive tax reform measure before any of them had read it, Republicans predicted that the strategy would flop.
“Nobody believes them,” said former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), a close Trump ally. “Republicans should ignore it and get the bill through and count on the economy’s growth and the tax cut to carry them to victory next year.”
Nobody believes them? The economy will take off and everyone will soon be rich and fat and happy? The economy may continue to do what it is doing – doing well enough anyway – and who believes what is clear:
A polling average compiled by FiveThirtyEight found that 46 percent of the public opposes the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, compared to 32 percent who support it. That makes it slightly less popular than the 1993 tax increase that helped Republicans seize Congress from President Bill Clinton’s Democrats.
Guy Cecil, the president of Priorities USA, said surveys show that voters will respond negatively when they learn the details of the legislation.
“When Americans find out that the wealthy and big corporations are getting most of the benefits, they oppose it, even when they get something small as well,” Cecil said.
Trump predicted an economic boom that would lead to employers raising wages for workers – even if he, and no economist either, couldn’t say just why that would happen. Corporate leaders shrugged. Why would they raise wages? They could do other things with the money – pay big dividends to shareholders, do buy-backs of their shares to keep share prices up, or they could use the money to build new factories in Vietnam or Peru, where labor costs are minuscule. There’s nothing in this legislation to keep them from doing any of that, so this seems like a bad joke:
In Ohio, where Sanders headlined two Saturday rallies, former Consumer Finance Protection Bureau director Richard Cordray, who is widely expected to run for governor, warned middle-class voters that the Trump administration is making it easier to bilk them. Democrats spent Monday and Tuesday attacking the Trump administration for installing Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney atop the agency, and before that, railed against Republicans for undoing a CFPB rule that made it easier to sue banks.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who is up for reelection in 2018, said he plans to use all facets of Trump’s regulatory and tax policies to make a case against him and the Republican-controlled Congress.
“The public by Election Day will see how this Republican majority is wholly owned by Wall Street on every issue and the administration increasingly resembles a retreat for Goldman Sachs executives,” Brown said in an interview. “Whatever plays into that, whether it’s going after the overtime rule or giving all kinds of breaks to Wall Street, or relaxing environmental rules to clean up Lake Erie, you’ll see what this will all be framed by.”
That might work in Ohio:
Dayton was one place where Brown would test his theories. In 2016, Trump became the first Republican in 28 years to carry the surrounding Montgomery County, campaigning in the city on a promise to bring back manufacturing jobs. Local Democrats, who had organized protests of the bill, said that the measure risked the “feds, meds and eds” jobs – government, health care and education – that had fueled the area’s comeback.
“Who actually wants this thing?” asked Nan Whaley, the mayor of Dayton, who’s running for the Democratic nomination for governor. “The Realtors, the governors, the mayors, the universities, the hospitals – they don’t want it. Who does, except their donors?”
E. J. Dionne sums this up nicely:
One salutary outcome of this episode is that Trump showed how nonsensical were the widely repeated assertions that he was outside the Republican mainstream. We now know he is just a flamboyantly clownish and unconscionably mean version of an old-fashioned corporate conservative.
There is not an authentically populist bone in this billionaire’s body. He regularly demonstrates his utter contempt for working people by treating them as rubes. He seems to think that racist gestures and malicious comments about immigrants and Muslims will distract working-class voters from how far he is tilting government away from their interests and toward those of his family and his rich friends.
Trump and his party will learn how many of the Americans they are taking for granted are much smarter than this and know when someone is selling them out – because, sadly, it’s something they are familiar with.
Dionne says that people will notice what just happened, but Fareed Zakaria wonders about that:
Congress’s own think tanks – the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office – calculate that in 10 years, people making between $50,000 and $75,000 (around the median income in the United States) would effectively pay a whopping $4 billion MORE in taxes, while people making $1 million or more would pay $5.8 billion LESS under the Senate bill. And that doesn’t take into account the massive cuts in services, health care and other benefits that would likely result. Martin Wolf, the sober and fact-based chief economics commentator for the Financial Times, concludes, “This is a determined effort to shift resources from the bottom, middle and even upper middle of the U.S. income distribution toward the very top, combined with big increases in economic insecurity for the great majority.”
That is pure class warfare, but perhaps that’s not Trump’s fault:
The puzzle, Wolf says, is why this is a politically successful strategy. The Republican Party is pursuing an economic agenda for the 0.1 percent, but it needs to win the votes of the majority. This is the issue that University of California at Berkeley political scientist Paul Pierson discusses in a recently published essay. Writing in the British Journal of Sociology, Pierson notes that Trump’s program does have strong populist aspects, especially on trade and immigration. But, he points out, “On the big economic issues of taxes, spending and regulation – ones that have animated conservative elites for a generation – he has pursued, or supported, an agenda that is extremely friendly to large corporations, wealthy families, and well-positioned rent-seekers. His budgetary policies (and those pursued by his Republican allies in Congress) will, if enacted, be devastating to the same rural and moderate-income communities that helped him win office.”
Pierson argues that Trump entered the White House with a set of inchoate ideas and no real organization. Thus, his administration was ripe for takeover by the most ardent, organized and well-funded elements of the Republican Party – its libertarian wing. Nurtured and built up over the years, this group of conservatives decided to ally with the Trump administration to enact its long-standing agenda. Pierson quotes Grover Norquist, the fiercely anti-statist GOP operative, explaining in 2012 his views on the selection of a Republican presidential nominee. “We are not auditioning for fearless leader. We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We just need a president to sign this stuff.”
That’s what they got. Trump seems to have no long-standing ideology, or convictions, so he was no more than a useful idiot and this was a scam:
Is it that the Republican Party is cleverly and successfully hoodwinking its supporters, promising them populism and enacting plutocratic capitalism instead? This view has been a staple of liberal analysis for years, most prominently in Thomas Frank’s book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” Frank argued that Republicans have been able to work this magic trick by dangling social issues in front of working-class voters, who fall for the bait and lose sight of the fact that they are voting against their own interests. Both Wolf and Pierson believe that this trickery will prove dangerous for Republicans. “The plutocrats are riding on a hungry tiger,” writes Wolf.
Zakaria, however, thinks that this analysis may be wrong:
What if people are not being fooled at all? What if people are actually motivated far more deeply by issues surrounding religion, race and culture than they are by economics? There is increasing evidence that Trump’s base supports him because they feel a deep emotional, cultural and class affinity for him. And while the tax bill is analyzed by economists, Trump picks fights with black athletes, tweets misleading anti-Muslim videos and promises not to yield on immigration. Perhaps he knows his base better than we do…
What if, in the eyes of a large group of Americans, these other issues are the ones for which they will stand up, protest, support politicians and even pay an economic price? What if, for many people, in America and around the world, these are their true interests?
That would mean that many poor and middle-class Americans would gladly pay far higher taxes to rid the country of Muslims and Mexicans and those Black Lives Matter thugs, who want to kill policemen, and Colin Kaepernick, and gays too, and urban hipsters and the fancy-pants experts and those goofy scientists, and anyone who doesn’t consider Jesus Christ his or her personal savior. That might be worth paying the federal government a few thousand dollars more each year – it might be a bargain.
And as Michael Kranish notes, Donald Trump is a man of the people:
Elton John blares so loudly on Donald Trump’s campaign plane that staffers can’t hear themselves think. Press secretary Hope Hicks uses a steamer to press Trump’s pants – while he is still wearing them. Trump screams at his top aides, who are subjected to expletive-filled tirades in which they get their “face ripped off.”
And Trump’s appetite seems to know no bounds when it comes to McDonald’s, with a dinner order consisting of “two Big Macs, two Fillet-O-Fish, and a chocolate malted.”
The scenes are among the most surreal passages in a forthcoming book chronicling Trump’s path to the presidency co-written by Corey Lewandowski, who was fired as Trump’s campaign manager, and David Bossie, another top aide. The book, “Let Trump Be Trump,” paints a portrait of a campaign with an untested candidate and staff rocketing from crisis to crisis, in which Lewandowski and a cast of mostly neophyte political aides learn on the fly and ultimately accept Trump’s propensity to go angrily off message.
So, we have an angry old white man scarfing down Big Macs, who can’t remember what he just said, shouting a lot and making everyone uncomfortable. That humanizes the man. There are many such angry old white men everywhere, or maybe not:
Trump’s fast-food diet is a theme. “On Trump Force One there were four major food groups: McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, pizza and Diet Coke,” the authors write.
The plane’s cupboards were stacked with Vienna Fingers, potato chips, pretzels and many packages of Oreos because Trump, a renowned germaphobe, would not eat from a previously opened package.
Okay, that’s a little strange, but all of this is strange. Why do the rich need this money again? Why now? What problem does this solve? And was no one supposed to notice what was going on, in the wee small hours of a Saturday morning? People noticed. Timing isn’t everything.