The nightmare scenario for them goes like this. Tax reform gets bogged down in difficult questions about whose loopholes are going to be eliminated and how it will all be paid for and fails to pass; Republican voters are enraged and either turn out incumbents in primaries or don’t bother to show up for the general election, or both; then Democrats take back the House and maybe even the Senate as well.
It’s plausible, but there are two different theories about what the Republican base is after and what will incur its wrath. The first is that the base is a populist one, distrustful of elites and eager for policies aimed at the working class. This is the impulse Donald Trump cultivated during the campaign. “Five, 10 years from now — different party. You’re going to have a worker’s party,” he said, railing against trade agreements and promising not to cut Social Security. It was mostly a con, but what’s important is that GOP voters bought it. That would suggest that Republicans need to deliver policies that help working people or they’ll be ousted by a pitchfork-wielding mob.
If that were the case, then this tax cut would be completely worthless as a means to their political ends. Although the details are still being worked out, like every Republican tax plan it showers enormous benefits on corporations and the wealthy while giving a few crumbs to everyone else. The arguments Republicans make about how the purpose of the tax plan is to help regular folks — like the utterly fraudulent claim that cutting corporate taxes will increase the average family’s income by $4,000 — are slapped in an almost halfhearted way onto whatever they actually want to do. They even claim that eliminating the inheritance tax, which is only paid on estates valued at over $5.5 million, has no purpose other than giving a break to small businesses and family farms. It’s hard to get much more shamelessly dishonest than that.
The second theory, and the one you hear more from members of Congress, is essentially substance-free. It says that what’s important isn’t so much the details of legislation but that this Congress pass something. They failed in their attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, so they have to cut taxes, not just because it’s an eternal Republican priority but because it constitutes doing something big. Otherwise their voters will decide they’re ineffectual and weak, which is what those voters thought of them during the Obama years, and part of what led to the nomination of Donald Trump.
“The attitude of the conservative base is,’‘If they don’t do this, they’re worthless,'” says Stephen Moore of the Heritage Foundation. Or as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham put it, “If you care about the Republican Party we better produce because those who put us here have had it with us.”
This is the more powerful theory, because Republicans in Congress went through years of being yelled at by tea partyers demanding to know why they had failed to repeal the ACA, make America immigrant-free and banish Barack Obama to the Phantom Zone. This was mostly those establishment Republicans’ own fault, since they pretended to those voters that they could resist Obama in ways that they knew were impossible as long as he was president, but over time — and with a few primary losses of their colleagues — the fear of their base became part of their psychology.
The preference in Congress for theory #2 enables them to ignore the actual policies that a populist approach might entail and just do what they want to do anyway — and what their donors want them to do. I’ve got news for you: the billionaire Koch brothers aren’t bankrolling a multimillion-dollar effort to promote tax cuts because they’re hoping the cuts will benefit the average Joe. When Congress passes a bill to allow banks to defraud people without any fear of consequences, it’s a good sign that a substantive economic populism isn’t driving the party.
Nevertheless, there’s little evidence that rank-and-file Republicans are dying for a tax cut. Many polls show them essentially indifferent to it, but if you ask the question the right way, you’ll find that they’re willing to go along. For instance, this AP poll found that while only 19 percent of Democrats and 33 percent of independents thought the tax cut would help the middle class, a whopping 79 percent of Republicans said it would.
That isn’t all that surprising, since partisan allegiances mean that people tend to believe whatever their party leaders are telling them. But a year from now, when the tax cut is (probably) passed and Republicans are begging their voters to get out and vote, they’ll say, “Hey, we cut taxes! Wasn’t that great?” If the populist theory is correct, their base will respond, “I didn’t benefit from that” and stay home. If the “do something” theory is correct, their base will say, “That’s right, you did! It didn’t make any difference in my life, but way to go!” and flock to the polls.
The latter, of course, is what Republicans are hoping will happen.