If Die Hard is a Christmas movie (and this is debatable), then perhaps this explains why Marco Rubio is suddenly giving us his best Bruce Willis impersonation. Normally an affable team player, Rubio has transformed into “a fly in the ointment… The monkey in the wrench. The pain in the ass.”
I’m speaking, of course, about Rubio’s 12th hour threat to vote against the tax bill if his fellow Republicans do not accede to his demands for an expanded child tax credit.
“It’s worse than a crime, it’s a blunder,” Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, tells me. “This is not ‘last minute,’ this is after the curtain is down. So this is not some kind of clever ploy, it’s too weird for words.”
It makes sense that the party ostensibly for family values would want a tax code that reflects said values. And, indeed, Rubio is being championed by compassionate conservatives and “reformicons” who believe the current bill favors the wealthy and corporations over “working families.”
But this is a high-stakes gambit that could either work—or leave Republicans with an empty stocking as 2017 winds to a close.
First, as I’ve been warning about for months, the potential problems with cutting a deal like this is that it (a) could incentivize other senators to play hardball and demand other changes (and then this really could spiral out of control), and (b) any changes to an already tenuously crafted bill to accommodate one senator might alienate another. Conceding to a more generous tax credit for one group of Americans means a less generous tax cut for another (which probably means the corporate tax cut becomes slightly less generous) or an even larger deficit number.
This debate exposes another cleavage on the right, which is the fact that even people who love tax cuts do not agree on why.
Supply-siders believe the purpose of cutting taxes is to stimulate growth, which will then (using a term they would view as derogatory) “trickle-down” to the rest of us. As such, any revenue that goes to treating a symptom (such as a child tax credit) is actually money being diverted from the root cause of the problem (which is the lack of economic growth).
Other conservatives have a simpler, more populist, goal: They want working families to keep more of what they earn (which, at the macro level, is demand-side). Aside from being much more politically palatable, this also has the benefit of being a form of conservative social engineering that incentivizes behavior like childrearing, home ownership, etc.
While these preferences are not mutually exclusive, there is competition for resources. This is why you have conservatives like Larry Kudlow criticizing Rubio’s move.
Were this a dorm-room debate, conservatives who favor tax cuts (for whatever reason) might just agree to disagree on the particulars. But the stakes are getting higher. Again, it’s important to stress how little time there is left for Republicans to pass a major bill in 2017. And this is not altogether an arbitrary deadline. Democrat Doug Jones, who just defeated Republican Roy Moore in Alabama, will replace Sen. Luther Strange in the coming weeks. And sources are telling CNN that Sen. John McCain looks increasingly frail. The Republicans couldn’t get anything done when they had 52 senators and a vice president as a tie-breaker. And don’t forget that Bob Corker already voted against this tax bill in the Senate. Who knows what 2018 will hold, but it’s not likely to get easier for Senate Republicans.
It’s late in the fourth quarter, and Republicans have failed to put any points on the board all year. They have time to run one more play, and Rubio is suddenly demanding they change the playbook to accommodate his preferences.
Now look, it’s always possible that Rubio gets his way and it works. Just hours before the Senate successfully passed their tax reform bill it looked like things were falling apart. That could happen again here. But what have Republicans done this year that should give them confidence that any changes to this already-delicate compromise deal can handle the slightest of changes without collapsing? If Republicans had strung together an impressive year of accomplishments, you might understand why Rubio would be willing to take this chance and hold out for a better deal. I’m just not sure a party that has failed to get anything of substance done has that luxury.
Lastly, I don’t think any discussion of this can end without addressing the fact that it is Marco Rubio (not Ted Cruz) who is engaging in what some might view as a selfish, high-stakes game. Regardless of the merits of his cause, Rubio is breaking protocol and putting his own policy preferences ahead of the team (granted, his own interests may benefit a great many families). And he’s doing this after the Senate passed a tax plan that he voted for. “You got to turn your homework in on time,” says Norquist. “Ted Cruz… used to behave like this when he was younger,” Norquist observed, but this time, instead of showboating or dropping a last-minute poison pill, Cruz went through proper channels to make substantial changes to this bill.
Norquist has a point, and I wonder if Cruz and Rubio might both be in the process of rebranding. In 2016, Rubio ran for president (and lost), at least partly because he didn’t look like enough of an anti-establishment fighter. Cruz also ran for president (and lost), at least partly because he looked like an attention-grabbing obstructionist. Perhaps they have over-learned the lessons of their 2016 defeats? As a result, Cruz seems to be maturing, while Rubio is taking a page from Cruz’s old playbook.
Rubio, like Cruz, is young. One suspects that they still harbor presidential ambitions. But these moves are risky. Rubio may look to some like an action hero who is taking on the bad guys, but to others, he is simultaneously reinforcing a narrative that he’s easy to manipulate. “The Washington Post wrote a piece mocking him, saying if he were a real man he’d threaten not to vote for the bill,” Norquist tells me. “And he turns around and takes the bait. It just looks like he’s pushed around the room by The Washington Post. I mean, it's just devastating.”
Just when you thought the Republicans couldn’t look any more divided, they insist on ending 2017 with a bang. Yippie-Kai-Yay. Welcome to the party, pal!