As a public policy wonk, I truly relish discussions about marginal rates, territoriality, state and local income tax exemptions and expensing. Yes, I’m aware that makes a total snooze at most holiday parties. Thankfully, I’ll spare you that encounter. The success or failure of the GOP tax reform is as simple as the closing line of a Capital One commercial: “What’s in your wallet?”
Republicans recognize the need for a win they can take home to voters. While important, discussing regulatory rollbacks and federal judicial confirmations is tough sledding at congressional town halls.
But a big tax cut in time for Christmas? Yes, please.
That’s the bottom line here. If Republicans let voters keep more of their money, this tax reform–whatever it ends up being–will be wildly popular. If not, Democrats will beat them into a political pulp.
Democrats are locked in their narrative that this tax reform benefits corporations (it does) and the wealthy (it does). They won’t miss an opportunity to brand Republicans as the party of industry and the rich.
The problem for Democrats is that they’re flatly ignoring the material tax cuts for the middle class. For example, the standard deduction appears set to substantially increase, it’s easy for people to see it on their tax forms, and it’s directed at the 70 percent of filers who don’t itemize.
In short, Republicans are looking at tax cuts for almost everybody.
This has Democrats turning into fiscally conservative deficit hawks in droves. They’re pointing to revenue predictions forecasting the tax cuts will add more than $1 trillion to budget deficits over the next decade.
Republican leaders disagree.
They argue that the economic gains spurred by the tax cuts will more than pay for their cost. “I not only don’t think it will increase the deficit, I think it will be beyond revenue neutral,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters in Kentucky. “In other words, I think it will produce more than enough to fill that gap.”
The question here is whether Republicans are really surrendering their fiscal conservatism, playing the long game or a little bit of both.
Even if tax reform does reduce government revenues significantly, Republicans will simply argue that America has a spending problem they couldn’t address in tax reform because Democrats weren’t interested in cooperating. Don’t think for a minute they’re going to agree with Democrats that our deficit problems are a tax issue.
Keep in mind that this is politics, not economics. If it were the latter, we would expect to hear plans to cut spending, reform entitlements and raise taxes in some reasonable combination to confront our ballooning debt.
But debt and deficits have become more of a political talking point than a serious issue Congress has any plans to address. Most Republicans and Democrats understandably fear the political consequences of trying to explain basic mathematics to voters as a justification for fiscal discipline. Selling self-control hasn’t won a popularity contest since…ever.
It’s also why we haven’t experienced a national budget surplus since 2001.
Call them cynical, but Republicans are banking that tax savings in a voter’s pocket will matter a lot more than the relative impact of tax reform on budget deficits. As consequential as the details of tax reform might be, whether or not those tax savings materialize across the board may be the only issue that determines success or failure for Republicans.