Opinion writer

As they get ready to make their big push for tax cuts, Republicans face a fundamental problem: Americans aren’t really interested. For example, a recent Politico-Harvard poll found only 20 percent of people saying cutting taxes should be an extremely important priority, and only 34 percent of Republicans polled said so. In an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, 62 percent said taxes on the wealthy should be increased, and 55 percent said the same about corporate taxes.

In the face of that indifference or even hostility to the single most heartfelt piece of the GOP agenda, they’ve got a sales job ahead of them. Damian Paletta and Mike DeBonis report on how they’re going to go about it:

The White House plan for a massive package of tax cuts is gaining new momentum as Republicans attempt to set aside months of intraparty squabbling and unify behind a key part of President Trump’s agenda.

Two developments are accelerating the effort: Key Senate Republicans reached a tentative deal this week to allow for as much as $1.5 trillion in tax reductions over 10 years; and there is a growing willingness within the GOP to embrace controversial, optimistic estimates of how much economic growth their tax plan would create.

Those upbeat estimates, often rejected by nonpartisan economists, would supplant the traditional forecasts offered by official scorekeepers at the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation, helping lawmakers argue that the plan would not increase the national debt.

In other words, their predictions about the awe-inspiring growth that their tax cuts will produce are going to become even more fantastical than they have been in the past. “Controversial” and “optimistic” is one way to describe the Republican rationale; you might also use “delusional” and “laughable,” or even “dishonest” and “cynical.” If you want an analogy, this is something like Republicans saying that they can cure all disease and allow everyone to live to 150 by distributing those titanium necklaces that idiot baseball players wear because they think it realigns their bioelectric currents.

Nevertheless, the unfortunate truth is that Democrats may not be able to stop Republicans from passing their cuts. Unlike the things the GOP wants to do on health care, cutting taxes doesn’t directly harm anyone, which means that even if the public doesn’t much want a tax cut for the wealthy, it probably won’t produce the urgent opposition that repealing the Affordable Care Act has. And what Republican is going to vote against a tax cut? As long as they have a majority in both houses, they’ll get it through. But Democrats surely ought to be able to make them pay a political price, particularly when their claims about the magnificent growth that tax cuts will produce are about to get even stupider.

To be clear, there are certain contexts in which certain tax cuts targeted in certain ways can have a positive impact on the economy. This is particularly true of cuts aimed at poor and middle-income people, who are likely to immediately spend whatever they get back; that money then circulates quickly through the economy. Tax cuts for the wealthy, on the other hand, are much more likely to be socked away with the rest of their wealth, which ends up benefiting no one but the rich folk who got them. And corporate tax cuts will wind up in stock buybacks and dividend payments — yes, to those same wealthy people.

Ask a bunch of economists of different political orientations, and they might disagree a bit on how big an impact changes in tax rates will have. Some will say tax cuts will slightly impede growth because they cause long-term deficits. Some will say there’s zero impact. And some will say there’s a small economic boost (see here, here or here). What almost none of them will say (except for a few clownish ideologues such as Stephen Moore and Arthur Laffer) is that changing rates by a few points here and there will cause an explosion of growth. But that’s exactly what Republican politicians will be arguing.

One of the ironies of the constant stream of dishonest and absurd arguments coming from Republicans about tax cuts is that this is supposed to be one of the few policy areas in which they really know their stuff. They don’t care much about health care and never have, so it isn’t all that surprising when you learn that Republican senators can’t tell you what their latest health-care plan does. But tax policy is their thing. Cutting taxes is what they live for. They should know the issue backward and forward — yet they keep making these ridiculous assertions that history proves are wrong, and that will almost certainly be proved wrong again.

So will Democrats be able to make them pay a price? The economy is going to be one of the biggest issues in 2018 and 2020, because it always is. And fortunately, Republicans are making a series of very specific claims about the glorious future we’ll be experiencing once their tax cuts are passed. Democrats are probably going to focus their criticism on the benefits the Republican plan gives to the wealthy and corporations, since polls show consistently that voters think those two groups pay too little in taxes, not too much.

But it would also be nice if Democrats could lay down markers now that would enable them to come back next November and in 2020 and hold Republicans accountable for what they promised. “You said if you cut taxes then we’d have an explosion of growth and it would solve all our economic problems,” they could say. “Why didn’t it happen?”

In fact, they — indeed, all of us — can start asking those questions now. I’d like to see Republican officeholders asked why, if tax cuts produce such extraordinary growth, George W. Bush’s 2001 and 2003 tax cuts didn’t do so. Or why they think the trickle-down theory failed so dramatically in Kansas, where Sam Brownback was elected governor in 2010 promising to slash taxes and produce an economic miracle. He got his tax cuts, but state revenue plunged, leading to brutal cutbacks in services, and the state’s economic growth has actually been worse than the country’s growth as a whole.

Forcing them to answer those questions won’t stop them from cutting taxes, because nothing will. But it might help make them accountable when their preposterous predictions about the magical effects of tax cuts fail to come true. Here’s what the president said during his final debate with Hillary Clinton:

“I’m going to create tremendous jobs. And we’re bringing GDP from, really, 1 percent, which is what it is now, and if she got in, it will be less than zero. But we’re bringing it from 1 percent up to 4 percent. And I actually think we can go higher than 4 percent. I think you can go to 5 percent or 6 percent.”

In the 21st century, average quarterly GDP growth has been around 1.9 percent. Is Trump’s tax cut going to double that? No. Is it going to triple it? Hell no. And when it doesn’t, every Republican who votes for the tax cut should have to explain why he or she was so spectacularly wrong.