Everyone knows the GOP tax bill is an abomination. But in its disregard for reality, its obvious plutocratic aims, and its flagrant hypocrisy, it’s also the logical culmination of the last forty years of Republican politics. Which makes it all the more surprising that it’s come as such a shock to so many who should know better.
Pundits across the land are appalled — appalled! — at the GOP’s unabashed disregard for the deficit, their shoddy math, and their casual employment of strategies that they spent years alleging the Democrats had used to pass Obamacare. These commentators, you see, have come to a realization: perhaps Republican rhetoric about prudent belt-tightening and reining in spending isn’t sincere.
“I interviewed Paul Ryan and Ron Johnson dozens (100s?) of times about the danger posed by the national debt,” wrote conservative “never-Trumper” and current MSNBC contributor Charlie Sykes. “Really disconcerting to watch them now embrace bill that will add $1 trillion or more to that debt.”
Steve Schmidt, John McCain’s former presidential campaign manager, argued the legislation showed that “everything everyone of them has ever said about spending was simply performance theater.”
It isn’t just conservatives who have had an epiphany.
“Democrats should never again allow Republicans to complain that we can’t afford a particular social program because of its deficit implications,” one Obama economic policy veteran told Dave Weigel. “’We can’t afford it’ is over.”
Vox‘s Ezra Klein decided that the bill “shows the GOP’s debt concerns were pure fraud.” (Earlier, he had mused: “A strange thing about doing policy journalism in the Trump era is it’s clear no one in power cares if they got the numbers wrong, if their proposal doesn’t achieve their stated goals, if the arguments they’re making are wrong.”)
While it’s gratifying many are finally figuring out that the GOP has been cynically using fake deficit concerns to nakedly pursue their ambitions, one is tempted to ask: “What took you so long?”
In fact, some still haven’t gotten there. Last week, the New York Times lamented that “debt concerns, once a core Republican tenet,” have taken “a back seat to tax cuts.” The article went on to explain how “Republicans got to that extraordinary point,” as if the GOP’s actions are somehow out of character.
The GOP tax bill is of course especially bad, both in its utter shamelessness and in the way it threw any semblance of normal legislative procedure to the side, like Trump shoving his way to the front of a photo op. But the idea that puffed-up debt concerns are some new Trump-era element of the GOP is so utterly at odds with decades of political history that you have to wonder if the nation’s punditry have all simultaneously suffered a blow to the head. The modern GOP has always been exceptionally committed to shoveling money to the rich while hollowing out any government function that doesn’t — they’ve just never been this barefaced about it.
After all, this is the same party that in recent years put forward multiple nonsensical, regressive budgets, written by the same person — Wisconsin representative Paul Ryan — partly responsible for the current legislative travesty. In his 2014 budget proposal, Ryan based his numbers on the fantastical and consistently disproven idea that cutting taxes would jumpstart the economy and thus pay for themselves. Columnists at the time termed it “bogus New Math,” called it a “war against math,” accused the GOP of trying to “cook the books,” and declared it “a gimmick that would only invite more mischief.” This was just three years ago.
Ryan’s 2013 plan was based on similarly absurd and widely criticized numbers, again in the service of delivering massive tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy while gutting vital services. The same was true of his 2012 budget, which promised to offset trillions of dollars in tax reductions by eliminating tax deductions that he never bothered to specify. Pundits called it “a con game” and said that “the numbers don’t add up.” (Even so, years later, one would wonder if Ryan was “too smart to be president.”)
“The thing about these cuts is that they’re not really thought through,” one pundit commented at the time. That pundit? The same Ezra Klein now shocked that Trump-era Republicans don’t care about math or reality.
This is the same GOP that’s spent years preaching balanced budgets and fiscal discipline out of one side of its mouth while promoting the world’s most bloated defense budgets out the other. That includes the 2018 budget, which the GOP-controlled Congress wanted to expand by as much as $37 billion. Just a few weeks before the tax bill vote, the House overwhelmingly passed a $700 billion defense spending bill — the largest in history.
It’s the same party that relentlessly wielded budget deficits and debt as a weapon of class warfare during the Obama years — see former House minority leader John Boehner killing the extension of unemployment insurance and allowing affordable heating for low-income families to lapse on the grounds that the programs weren’t “fiscally responsible” and that “we’re broke” — immediately after eight years of spending by their guy.
Boehner and the rest of the GOP had of course been fully behind George W. Bush as he lowered tax rates on high earners and proceeded to put the public on the hook for trillions of dollars worth of wars and a mammoth new bureaucracy devoted to combating terrorism. Meanwhile, Bush, after turning an inherited surplus into historically massive deficits, had the gall in a 2004 presidential debate to claim Social Security was running out of money and pitch its partial privatization.
And of course, the GOP is still the party of Reagan, the patron saint of deficit hypocrisy, who advocated fiscal responsibility — trimming “extravagance and fat in government,” as he put it in his 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter — and then swiftly slashed taxes while embarking on a program of massive military spending that left the country in what was at the time historically high debt. He saw no shame in pairing the phrase “get government back within its means” with the phrase “lighten our punitive tax burden.” At the same time, he lied about the supposed insolvency of Social Security. No wonder Dick Cheney would later remark that “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.”
In fact, they had a side benefit. After exploding the debt with unnecessary spending and tax cuts, Republicans then inevitably used it to justify cutting or neglecting vital public services, particularly when Democrats were in power. We’re seeing it again now, from Orrin Hatch (the tax bill’s chief author) declaring a few days back that the Children’s Health Insurance Program can’t pass because “we don’t have money anymore,” to Marco Rubio’s comment that the “driver of our debt is the structure of Social Security and Medicare” and that this spending would have to be brought “under control.”
One might think that nearly forty years of this charade would have been enough to make centrist pundits realize that maybe, just maybe, Republicans aren’t being genuine when they say social spending has to be pruned for the sake of fiscal responsibility. Still, better late than never.