In their postmortems of a brutal election night, Republican elected officials, strategists, and pundits all seemed to agree on one thing: The party really, really needs to pass the tax-cut bill now. It needs to "put a W on the board." It needs to deliver something meaningful to President Trump's desk.
Even before Tuesday's rout, the GOP tax cut effort was the "glue holding a fractured Republican Party together," according to a New York Times analysis: "The prospect of a once-in-a-generation bill to cut taxes on businesses and individuals increasingly appears to be the best hope for a party anxious to find common ground and advance an effort that it has long championed as the pinnacle of Republican orthodoxy. It is a bit like having a baby to save a failing marriage."
That's a clever simile. There's truth to it. But it's misleading to look at tax cuts as the "pinnacle of Republican orthodoxy." Rather than a hierarchy of priorities with tax cuts at its highest point, consider the GOP agenda as a retail establishment instead. At the front of the store are the loss leaders — the items they discount, the stuff they don't care about taking a hit on — in order to lure you into buying the highly profitable stuff they really want to sell.
Consider the ill-fated Ed Gillespie campaign for governor in Virginia. In its final push, the campaign downplayed its policy agenda, including a proposal for an across-the-board tax cut that had been the "centerpiece" of the campaign in March, and began highlighting culturally incendiary issues like MS-13 gangs, sanctuary cities, and Confederate statues. It's highly unlikely that the establishment stalwart Gillespie truly cared about these issues; in effect, they were his loss leaders. The centerpiece — the big payoff — was the tax cuts.
It didn't work for Gillespie, and that should deeply worry national Republicans, at least when it comes to selling a tax-cut proposal that heavily favors the top 1 percent of earners.
Man doesn't live by bread alone — and Republicans can't live by tax cuts alone. Today's hyperfocus on upper-bracket tax cuts is a doctrinal triumph of the supply-side wing of the conservative movement, which has dined for years on self-serving myths about JFK and Ronald Reagan. But there's scant evidence in history to support the predominance of tax-cutting as a panacea for either the economy or GOP electoral success.
Nixon won on restoring law and order and winding down the war in Vietnam; Reagan, stagflation and the Desert One fiasco; Bush 41, on continuing Reagan's legacy and promising not to raise taxes; Bush 43, on Clinton fatigue and "restoring dignity to the White House" and, the second time, on terrorism; the Obama-era congressional routs, on Obamacare and its shaky implementation; and Trump … well, let's agree Trump didn't win key Rust Belt voters because of a promise to cut income tax rates for corporations and affluent individuals.
There's a case to be made that narrowly-tailored tax cuts for middle-class families who are having difficulty keeping up with living expenses would be a political winner for Trump and congressional Republicans. But that's not what they're proposing (even if that's the way they will attempt to sell it). As word gets out that the GOP tax-cut plan is heavily tilted toward the wealthy and disadvantages the very kind of suburban voters among whom they just got shellacked, its magical powers of uniting the party are going to evaporate.
Republicans are counting on the tax-cut issue to bear too much weight. Tax cuts are supposed to be the reward — not the lure — for winning elections. And they're about to find out that they probably can't save the party from losing the next one.