Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

The Trump administration is set to roll out a new analysis on Monday that supposedly demonstrates that President Trump’s proposed tax plan would ultimately boost middle-class incomes by thousands of dollars. This is based on the notion that corporations will pass their tax savings under Trump’s plan on to workers, something that other researchers doubt. In reality, this line of argument is really meant to mask the fact that Trump’s tax framework — which Republicans are working on in Congress — would lavish most of its benefits on the very highest earners.

Trump allies and Republicans are so desperate to pass this tax plan that they’re also doubling down on another strange argument: If Republicans don’t get this plan passed, their majority in Congress is doomed — and with it, so is the Trump agenda. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) pushed this line yesterday on “Face the Nation,” arguing that if Republicans don’t pass tax reform, “we’re dead.”

But these two lines of argument, when taken together, actually illustrate just how deep the scamming around these matters really runs. In fact, the scamming is so out of control that it has taken on a life of its own, and it is hard to keep track of all of its various components at this point.

Here is the story line we are being asked to believe. Former Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon is promoting primary challengers against Senate GOP incumbents, arguing that the GOP establishment has diverted from the “populist economic nationalist” agenda that powered Trump’s victory. Republicans lament that this constitutes a serious threat to both the GOP and Trump — and now they’re saying that passing the tax cuts is the only way to ward off that threat.

Graham, for instance, says that if the tax plan doesn’t pass, “all” of the Senate Republican incumbents targeted by Bannon’s challengers will lose, and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is finished as GOP leader. Vice President Pence claims that if tax reform fails, “the future of this Congress” and “our entire agenda” — the Trump agenda — will fail with it.

Really? The only conceivable way for the GOP to save itself from the “economic populist” ferment among GOP voters is to pass an enormous tax cut for the wealthy and corporations? Can someone explain why we are supposed to believe this?

One thing we do know is that GOP donors want these tax cuts. James Hohmann reports that at a donor conclave held last week by the Koch brothers, donors widely exhibited their anger with the GOP Congress for its failings, and they are bankrolling an expensive campaign to push these tax cuts through. Note this remarkable passage:

They take it as a given that Trump is on board and will sign whatever could clear Congress. Tax cuts would be the best Christmas gift imaginable for deep-pocketed donors and the corporations they lead. It would take away a lot of the bad taste still left in their mouths from the failure to repeal Obamacare. But a failure to follow through could cause some donors to close their checkbooks.

Yet we are being told that giving Trump the “win” of delivering the tax cuts elite GOP donors want is the way to tamp down the “economic populist” ferment among GOP voters that is so out of control. It is possible that the GOP base agrees with the party’s donor elite that these tax cuts are exactly what the United States needs most right now, and that passing them will suddenly make GOP base voters overwhelmingly happy with the GOP Congress. But if that were the case, why would Republican leaders need to resort to so many absurd lies (which Paul Krugman documents at length) to sell the plan? I don’t think we should simply accept this claim on faith. It deserves a lot more skepticism.

The claims being made on the side of the “insurgents” make no more sense. Bannon keeps claiming that his “economic populist” insurgent challengers are fueled by the GOP establishment’s alleged betrayal of the Trump agenda. But Trump is 100 percent all in with what the GOP establishment wants on taxes. Have you heard a single peep of criticism of this tax-reform plan from any of his challengers? In what sense are Bannon’s challengers revolting against these elites? Yes, Bannon has urged Trump to forcefully adopt positions (on the Charlottesville white supremacists, on Joe Arpaio, on deporting young immigrants) that are openly designed to stoke racial tensions, and GOP elites are uncomfortable with this. But where is the economic side of Bannon’s populism? If you were to ask Bannon’s challengers if they favor the Trump/GOP tax plan, I guarantee you that they would either support it or prefer something more regressive and beneficial to elites. So Bannon’s whole line, too, deserves more skepticism.

This whole debate is entirely off the rails. Nothing that leaders say on any side — whether they’re the “establishment” or the “insurgents” — about what is going on among Republican voters makes even minimal logical sense. One persuasive explanation for this through-the-looking-glass state of affairs was recently offered by Ross Douthat, which is that there is an enormous void at the core of the GOP right now when it comes to what the party is supposed to stand for. Each side, I would add, is employing its own scam designed to fill that vacuum. This is not normal, and it isn’t possible to have a rational political debate under these conditions.

* THERE WILL BE AD WARS OVER TRUMP’S SABOTAGE: The pro-Obamacare group Save My Care is going up with a new TV spot hitting Republicans over Trump’s latest sabotage of the Affordable Care Act, i.e, ending “cost-sharing reductions.” The ad notes that Congressional Republicans can appropriate the money to cover them, and shows Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) making this key point: “We, the Republican Party, will own this.”

Yes, you will. And if Republicans don’t act to stave off the disruptions that this could cause, there will be ad wars over this point heading into the 2018 elections.

* TRUMP CAMPAIGN SPENDS BIGLY ON LEGAL FEES: The Trump campaign has announced that it has spent more than $1 million on legal fees in the past three months. The New York Times reports:

During that period, legal fees represented more than 25 percent of all spending by Mr. Trump’s campaign. The legal spending was nearly twice as much as the campaign spent during the preceding three months. The report underscores the degree to which Mr. Trump’s team has been consumed by investigations being pursued by congressional committees and the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III.

The total in legal fees spent thus far responding to these Russia hoaxes: $2.1 million. Who says all those GOP donors enraged by Trump/GOP inaction are getting nothing in return for their money?

* TRUMP’S ACA SABOTAGE WILL HIT TRUMP STATES HARD: The Associated Press calculates that Trump’s latest sabotage of the ACA (ending the cost-sharing reductions) could hit red and swing states he carried in 2016:

Nearly 70 percent of those benefiting from the so-called cost-sharing subsidies live in states Trump won last November, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. … An estimated 4 million people were benefiting from the cost-sharing payments in the 30 states Trump carried … Of the 10 states with the highest percentage of consumers benefiting from cost-sharing, all but one — Massachusetts — went for Trump.

The AP also notes that this will cause soaring premiums for many who were not benefiting directly from the subsidies. That’s already happening in the red states of Arkansas and Mississippi.

* IN VIRGINIA RACE, THE GOP IS TRUMP’S PARTY: Jonathan Martin reports that GOP gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie can’t decide whether to campaign with Trump, even as he is spending big on ads about Confederate statues and scary immigrants:

Trailing in every public poll, Mr. Gillespie is now engaged in a robust debate with his advisers about whether he should ask the president to stump with him, according to multiple Republican officials familiar with the conversations. … He is spending the bulk of his money on commercials focused on the [Confederate] statues … and illegal immigrants. One of his immigration ads features amply tattooed Salvadoran prisoners meant to be members of the menacing gang MS-13, a target of the president’s.

This perfectly captures the situation: Gillespie is happy to traffic in Trump’s race-based appeals to boost turnout among the Trump base, but he doesn’t want to be seen with the man himself.

* TRUMP’S LIES AREN’T HELPING COAL COUNTRY: The Los Angeles Times has a great piece reporting that Trump’s moves to roll back President Barack Obama’s climate change agenda aren’t actually bringing coal jobs roaring back, as he promised:

Coal facilities throughout the country are … finding no salvation in the elimination of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan … A fresh round of closures expected to cost at least 850 jobs was announced by Vistra Energy in Texas this week … Even after straining to show the repeal of the Obama-era rules would boost the economy by baking into their plan financial assumptions that many experts dispute, their plan as written still doesn’t do much for the sagging coal industry.

As the LA Times shows, the White House is using propaganda and lies about the impact of ending the Clean Power Plan to sell an agenda based on an even bigger lie about why coal is ailing.

* WHAT REFORMERS SHOULD BE DOING — NOW: E.J. Dionne Jr. has a nice column on a range of new proposals circulating among Democrats to improve our democracy, including national standards to limit gerrymandering and voter suppression. The larger context:

Political movements should not squander their time in opposition. They should use the opportunity that a respite from power affords to think boldly, broadly and practically. There is one other thing about reform: It happens when even those who are skeptical of change realize that the existing system cannot sustain itself. If Trump’s rise and the abuses of his presidency do not persuade us about the depth of our problem, nothing will.

Indeed, as Dionne, Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann argue in their new book, the upside of the Trump era may be that it is forcing us to rethink how to revitalize our democratic experiment.

* AMERICANS KNOW TRUMP’S TAX PLAN WOULD FAVOR RICH: A new CBS News poll finds that 58 percent of Americans think the tax reforms being discussed would favor the wealthy, while only 19 percent think all would be treated equally. And:

Among President Trump’s strongest supporters, there is a larger view that all would be treated equally, at 40 percent — but his strongest backers are the most likely of any group to feel this way. His softer, more conditional supporters are more mixed on the effects.

Which suggests that even some Trump supporters may be on to his scam. But does that even matter?