The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why the Republican establishment is actually winning

(Reuters/Rebecca Cook)
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These are the times that try the Republican establishment's, well, maybe not souls, but at least self-confidence.

Now, things aren't crossing-the-Delaware-to-launch-a-sneak-attack-during-Christmas bad, but they're not much better either. Not when the Republican establishment's favorite son has been reduced to trading schoolyard taunts with the actual front-runner in a last-ditch bid for relevancy — which is backfiring badly. Instead of falling in line behind the elite's preferred candidate, Republican voters have fallen for one guy who, to certain ears, sounds like the second coming of George Wallace and another who sounds like the second coming of Barry Goldwater.

But the Republican establishment isn't just worried about losing an election. It's worried about losing the party itself. In other words, that the party of Reagan might become the party of Trump, that the party of conservatism might become the party of nationalism, that the party of small government might become the party of big government for the right people. Of course, a lot of rank-and-file Republicans have wanted these things for awhile — that's why Trump is doing so well — but they haven't had the money, the organization or, most importantly, the candidate to actually pull it off. Until now, that is.

President Obama said on March 10 that the Republican Party establishment is to blame for the divisive tone of the 2016 presidential race. (Video: The White House)

If this is a revolution, though, it's a funny kind of one. That's because the new boss sure does look a lot like the old boss, at least when it comes to what the Republican establishment cares about the most. And that's cutting taxes for the rich. Indeed, the two "anti-establishment" candidates are even more orthodox on this than the establishment ones. You can see that in the chart below. Trump and Cruz would both, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, cut taxes for the top 1 percent by twice as much as Rubio would. And though they all would give the top 0.1 percent a $1 million-plus tax cut, it's the putative outsiders who would give the plutocrats the most.

Populism ain't what it used to be.

Consider this: the top 1 percent would get 40 percent of all the tax cuts under Rubio's plan, 39.8 percent under Trump's, and 49.8 percent under Cruz's. People of more modest means, though, would not be so lucky. The bottom 40 percent of households would only get 5.3 percent of Rubio's tax cuts, 5.3 percent of Trump's, and 2 percent of Cruz's.*

So even the Republican rebels have pledged fealty to the Republican establishment when it comes to taxes. Although "fealty" might not be strong enough a word. As the Tax Policy Center's Len Burman points out, all the Republican candidates are proposing what would, as a share of the economy, be the biggest tax cuts in history. Bigger than Kennedy's, bigger than Reagan's, and bigger than George W. Bush's, too. If this is the Republican establishment losing, what would winning look like? A negative capital gains tax?

The irony is that the Republican Party is being torn apart because it is obsessed with cutting taxes for the rich, but the people who are tearing it apart think the same thing. Let's back up a minute. Why do I say the GOP's Ahab-like obsession with the top marginal tax rate hurt it so much? Well, the rich really are different from you and me: they have more money, so cutting their taxes costs more. In fact, it costs so much that not only will you be unable to afford anything else, but you also might have to cut Social Security and Medicare just to make it all add up. And this, as you might imagine, is not very popular outside of, say, Greenwich, Conn. All it offers 99 percent of the population is the promise that all this money will eventually trickle down to them in the form of higher wages and more jobs.

Except that it hasn't. George W. Bush's top-end tax cuts didn't make middle-class incomes grow even though the economy did. And neither have Kansas and Louisiana's when they tried the same thing at the state level. Growth hasn't increased, deficits have, and those state and local governments have had to drastically cut back on basic services like, for example, keeping elementary schools open. So it's no surprise that Republican voters are fed up with Republican politicians who haven't really helped them.

But the Republican establishment has been resilient in the face of this reality. It got Marco Rubio to say he'd eliminate the capital gains tax entirely after it criticized his tax plan for focusing too much on the middle class. And it got Donald Trump to reverse himself after he initially said that he'd be okay with higher taxes on the rich. Its institutions of think tanks, op-ed pages, and campaign advisers have been able to draw the line here, if nowhere else.

And that's why, to paraphrase Orwell, the pigs are walking like human beings.

*Update: Senator Cruz recently released a new version of his tax plan that would also expand the Earned Income Tax Credit. As a result, his plan would no longer raise taxes on the bottom 20 percent of households, and would give 2 percent of its total tax cuts to the bottom 40 percent instead of the 0.8 percent it had before.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) warns there could be an "uprising" if the "Washington establishment" tries to steal the Republican nomination. (Video: Reuters)