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The Game

The Republicans Are What We Thought They Were

First, they pass tax cuts and run up the deficit. Then, they use the deficit to ‘prove’ spending is out of control, and start slashing entitlement programs.

Michael Tomasky12.15.17 7:41 PM ET

You’re surprised at Bob Corker? Really? Please. Yes, he’s a deficit hawk. And he’s a senator who has, from time to time, made some effort to work in a bipartisan fashion.

But come on. He’s a Republican. He likes tax cuts. He believes, as they all do, in supply-side economic theory. And he has donors and constituents in Tennessee who wanted this. See what he said in defending his switch from no to yes on the GOP tax bill: He changed because of “many conversations over the past several days with individuals from both sides of the aisle across Tennessee and around the country.” In other words, rich people.

Besides, he’s not going to buck the team. Not on something like this. There’s a history here. Read Robert Kaiser’s great book Act of Congress, about how the Dodd-Frank bill became law. Corker was working with Chris Dodd. In absolute good faith! But Corker couldn’t—or wouldn’t—bring any other GOP senators along with him. A crucial defection, incidentally, was Richard Shelby, whom we’re praising this week for helping to save us from Sen. Roy Moore. Corker ultimately voted against it.

Marco Rubio? That was a joke from the start. He seems to have gotten a portion of what he wanted on the child tax credit. Rubio called the changed that leadership agreed to a “solid step.” We all know what words like that mean. They mean: Well, it kinda sucks, but it’s enough for me to save face, especially with Americans for Tax Reform and Club for Growth and all these other people threatening to find someone to primary my ass if I vote no.

Like the coach said, the Republicans are who we thought they were. So it’s done. Or is going to be. As I wrote in The New York Times Friday, it’s the second most unpopular piece of major domestic legislation of the last 27 years. The first most unpopular? The attempt to repeal Obamacare earlier this year. Nice work, 115th Congress!

You think this is bad, think about what’s next. What’s next are cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and other domestic spending programs. Because this is the Republican formula:

1. Pass massive tax cuts for the top 1 percent.

2. Run up the deficit.

3. A year or two later go, “Oh my God, look at the deficit! This proves that spending is just out of control!”

4. Start taking the axe to entitlement programs and the domestic discretionary budget.

That’s how it works, ever since supply-side became part of conversation. Ronald Reagan cut taxes and ran up deficits like mad, tripling, quadrupling them over Jimmy Carter’s level. George H.W. Bush raised taxes a little, but the economy was so in the doldrums that the deficit was still bad. Along came Bill Clinton, who had to fix it. He raised taxes. He did investments. He got the economy humming. He eliminated the deficit. Gave George W. Bush a surplus.

Then Dubya cut taxes. Twice. And started two unfunded-mandate wars. Up shot the deficit again. Ach, they all said! These deficits. We must cut spending. And bring Social Security under control. But they never did cut spending, and popular will against Bush’s Social Security privatization scheme was so strong that that one died on the vine fast. Meanwhile they turned the banking system into a casino, and that crashed.

Then came Barack Obama, who, again, had to fix it. He wasn’t able to, quite enough, because his stimulus package should have been much larger than political realities allowed. But he did reduce the deficit substantially. As a percentage of GDP, it went from the 10 percent Bush handed him to around 2.5 percent. And he oversaw 75 consecutive months of job growth. He handed Donald Trump exactly the economy that 14 months ago Trump was saying was a disaster but now is saying is beautiful.

That’s the cycle, folks. That’s how it works. And now, thanks to the GOP, we’re about to open another gash in the deficit. They’ll try to slash away, but I hope and think that by and large they won’t succeed, because if you thought this tax bill was unpopular, wait till you see what happens when they start openly talking about tinkering with people’s nursing home care (Medicaid), prescription drug benefits (Medicare), and fixed pension distributions (Social Security).

And so a Democrat may well get elected in 2021, inheriting a mess from Trump. A deficit. Maybe a bad economy. And it will be on the Democrat to fix it again. And he or she will. But only to a point. The Republicans, then in opposition, will obstruct and not allow the next Democrat to really fix things, because Republicans will know deep down that public investment would fix the economy, but they’ll rail against it on the grounds that it will… increase the deficit! So they will try to engineer things so that the recovery is tepid, so they can get the Democrat out and cut taxes for the rich one more time and balloon the deficit and start the whole grim process again.

That’s the game. It feels like we’re fated to play it for the next 50 years.

There’s one way out. The next time the Democrats are in power, they need to really turn the tables on tax reform. Not nip and tuck, but really fundamentally do something different. This isn’t the place for all the details. Maybe some future columns. But that will be the only way to break the pattern. They can’t do anything about what Congress is about to do. But they can smash the glass next time they have the hammer, and they’d better do it.

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