In an interview with Fox News’s Laura Ingraham on Wednesday night, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) cast the tax bill fight as a clash between parties: “The decision to get on the tax bill was totally partisan. Every Democrat said, ‘I don’t want to do tax reform.’ Every Republican said, ‘I do.’ That’s the appropriate area for us to have our discussions in public about the future of the country.”
The irony is McConnell has often said such partisan bills — in addition to being easy to undo — are easy to make unpopular.
Republicans in both chambers of Congress passed tax reform with no Democratic support — and even some Republicans voting in opposition. That, quoting McConnell, is a recipe for a political backlash.
During the nadir of modern Republican power — the period between 2009 and 2011 when the GOP controlled no more than 42 Senate seats — Democrats watched McConnell successfully grind down their bills by denying bipartisan cover. In the long committee process that produced the Affordable Care Act, Republicans succeeded in amending the bill. But when it came to the floor, in the House and Senate, Republicans unanimously voted against it.
After Democrats lost a key Senate race, giving Republicans enough votes to block the ACA through regular order, Democrats passed the rest of the bill through the reconciliation process (the very same process Republicans used this year for the failed lunge at the ACA and the successful passage of the tax bill).
Republicans at the time criticized what they considered an end run.
“The procedure was never contemplated for legislation of this magnitude,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa.)
“If they exercise that tool,” said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), “it’s going to be infinitely more difficult to bridge the partisan divide.”
McConnell and the rest of his party predicted that the Democrats’ use of the reconciliation process would bring about the ACA’s eventual collapse. No major social legislation — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid — had been rammed through by one party, they said.
In a interview after the 2010 elections with Joshua Green, McConnell explained the political theory behind this in a quote that Democrats would study for years: “We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals. Because we thought — correctly, I think — that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan. When you hang the ‘bipartisan’ tag on something, the perception is that differences have been worked out and there’s a broad agreement, that that’s the way forward.”
The next major legislative battle came after the 2010 midterm elections, when the newly Republican-run House demanded that any vote to increase the debt limit increase be yoked to spending cuts.
In May 2011, at a news conference held to make the GOP’s case for spending cuts, McConnell scolded reporters who said Republicans might lose a messaging war. The beauty of the debt limit, he said, was that both parties needed to vote together to increase it. Both parties would be on the hook for any “grand bargain,” meaning that neither party would absorb the blame if voters disliked the spending cuts.
McConnell used the example of one of Washington’s favorite stories — the 1983 deal between House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) and President Ronald Reagan that painfully increased Social Security taxes and the retirement age, making the program solvent for decades.
“Let me remind you that after Reagan and Tip O’Neill came together and altered the trajectory on Social Security, which included raising the age limit, Ronald Reagan eked out the next election, carrying only 49 of 50 states,” said McConnell. He paused so that reporters could get the joke. “Anything we agree to do together will not be an issue, and decide that if both sides thought this was necessary — I might not have liked this part of it, or that part of it — I don’t think either side will have to worry about political fallout next year.”
The Obama administration came very close to copying that approach, nearly signing off on a “grand bargain” that would have cut entitlement spending. But the right wing of the House Republican conference scuttled the deal, leading to a two-step backup plan: a bipartisan “supercommittee” tasked with cutting the deficit, and automatic spending cuts (sequestration) if the supercommittee failed.
The supercommittee did fail, with future House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) casting one of the votes against its plan. When the sequestration cuts went into place, both parties tumbled into a familiar argument, blaming each other for not having come to a deal in 2011.
In the 2014 and 2016 elections, one party got the blame for Washington’s dysfunction, from the ACA’s implementation to the automatic spending cuts: President Barack Obama’s Democrats.
In the run-up to the House and Senate tax cut, Democrats were occasionally hit with super PAC ads and critical editorials, suggesting that they’d be left out of a voter gold rush if they didn’t vote for the bill.
But Democrats remembered McConnell’s lessons from the Obama years: A bill seen as one party’s project would ultimately prove unpopular. Ahead of its implementation, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is the least popular tax cut plan in the modern history of polling.
Early Saturday morning, at a short news conference celebrating the tax bill’s passage, McConnell nonetheless predicted that the measure would become an election-winner for Republicans.
“At the end, there was not a single Democrat who thought this was a good idea,” said McConnell. “And so we’re going to take this message to the American people also a year from now.”