I am not the only observer who was surprised that the Republicans managed to get out of their own way and actually pass two versions of a relatively large change to the U.S. tax system. (What will happen as they try to agree on a final version is, of course, anyone's guess.) I was not, however, especially surprised by the added degrees of shamelessness and dishonesty that the Republicans were willing to bring to their effort.
After all, anyone who has been paying attention -- and who is not either a partisan Republican or a diehard believer that both parties are always equally to blame -- has seen this coming. Each time a big policy debate has erupted over the past generation, the Republicans have outdone themselves and degraded our political system in ways that were once unthinkable.
Consider how well all of the Republicans stuck to their talking points during the current debate about taxes -- and also consider just how delusional those talking points were. Yet even with all facts and logic amassed against them, they managed to keep a collective straight face while refusing to allow reality to intrude:
-- Polls clearly showed that the public did not want politicians to be wasting time on a tax cut bill, and people hated the bills that the Republicans produced, but Republicans nonetheless insisted that they were responding to the will of the American people.
-- The economy is too strong for there to be any meaningful demand-side boost from a tax cut, and the Fed will in any case increase interest rates to prevent inflation from increasing -- which is not to say that there would be much (or any) increased demand from a tax cut that puts money in the hands of people and businesses who are not cash constrained. Republicans insisted otherwise, of course.
-- The vast body of economic research rejected the long-debunked Laffer Curve claim that the bill would "pay for itself," and the only group of economists who said otherwise made transparently dishonest arguments to reach their desired conclusion. Yet nearly every public pronouncement from Republicans included claims that the tax cut would not increase the debt.
-- The other supply-side argument, that is, the claim that a big tax cut will encourage businesses to expand productive capacity, finds even less support from independent economic analysis. Businesses have all kinds of money to invest, but they are choosing not to do so. But who cares? Republicans insist that corporations are held back by "the highest tax rate in the world," which is a completely dishonest claim.
-- Senate Republicans decided to gaslight the public by telling them that the paltry tax cuts for some middle-class people were temporary but somehow not really temporary.
-- And of course, the whole process was carried out at breakneck speed by a party that had complained bitterly (and without any basis in reality) about being railroaded in 2009 and 2010 by Democratic majorities in Congress. [Note: The years in the previous sentence were originally listed in error as 2011 and 2012.]
I will point the finger at particular Republicans in a moment, but the group effort at dishonesty is noteworthy in and of itself. A news article in The New York Times that ran immediately after the Senate passed its bill provides a fascinating description of how the Republicans spun inconvenient facts to justify their rash actions.
For example, the Republicans disparaged an analysis from the nonpartisan staff of the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), which issued a report that contradicted the Republicans' talking points. Why did the contents of this report not give more than one Republican pause?
"Republicans wondered why the analysis arrived on Thursday, the day the Senate was originally scheduled to vote, a leadership aide said on Friday. The timing and the scoring of the analysis generated a lot of suspicion, the aide said."Suspicion? The Republicans were doing everything possible to pass the bill before the bad news could arrive, and the public servants at JCT managed to do their jobs before it was too late, so the Republicans decided that this was suspiciously timed to make them look bad. (Note the similarity, by the way, to accused sexual molester Roy Moore's defenders' claims that The Washington Post's story was conveniently timed before the election. Seriously.)
This is a story of groupthink in the extreme, and it is not a Trump story. It is a Republican story that has been building for many years. Trump just happened to be the useful idiot who stumbled into a position where he could help Republicans achieve their long-sought goals without any concern for the truth.
There is little to add here about the supposedly moderate or principled Republicans who were the imagined bulwark against this kind of insanity. Susan Collins suggested that maybe reducing the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent was a moderate alternative to 20 percent, but then she caved. Lisa Murkowski decided that having thirteen million people lose their health insurance was moderate enough (and I guess it was, at least in the sense that she voted against 23 million people losing their coverage over the summer).
John McCain's concerns about procedure? Jeff Flake's concerns about debt? Never mind. Yes, Bob Corker was the lone Republican vote against the bill, but it was a classic "free vote" with no consequences for the outcome or his (nonexistent) political future.
I continue to be fascinated by the Republican Party's devolution into a party that openly admits that it wants to harm vulnerable people, including children (but only those children who did not choose their parents wisely). Five years ago, based largely on Republicans' willingness (even eagerness) to make the lives of poor children more miserable, I reluctantly concluded that "the leadership of the Republican Party has been taken over by a group that can best be described as 'sociopaths.'"
I did not use that word loosely, and I described in detail why the Republicans by 2012 were showing evidence of sociopathy, especially their "disregard for social norms, rules, and obligations." And as 2017 ends, here we are.
I am hardly alone in reaching such a scathing conclusion about the Republicans. The political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, who for years were steeped in the both-sides-are-at-fault view of congressional dysfunction, have had the intellectual courage to call it as they see it rather than as they are supposed to see it. This past weekend, when they wrote that "the Republicans broke Congress," they were hardly being teary-eyed idealists:
Mann and Ornstein were seeing what everyone is seeing in the current rush to pass a regressive tax bill: "Republican leaders have been blunt about their motivation: to deliver on their promises to wealthy donors, and down the road, to use the leverage of huge deficits to cut and privatize Medicare and Social Security." This is not what the voters want, but Republicans do not care about the voters. (Gerrymandering and voter suppression take care of that.)"We have never suggested that Democrats are angels and Republicans devils. Parties exist to win elections and organize government, and they are shaped by the interests, ideas and donors that constitute their coalitions. Neither party is immune from a pull to the extreme. But the imbalance today is striking, and frightening."
Over the last ten years or so, I have written countless columns in which the message has essentially boiled down to this: At long last, no one can have any remaining doubt that the Republicans have abandoned any pretense of decency or honesty. Yet every time, some supposedly intelligent and well-meaning people have insisted on giving Republicans the benefit of the doubt.
No matter what happens from now on (regarding the tax bills or anything else), the one thing that the Fall of 2017 should finally have done is to extinguish the last ember of remaining doubt. Pretending that Republicans are anything but the evidence-disparaging opportunists that they are is now entirely an act of willful denial.