Letter from an American - June 13, 2023

Rep. Jason Smith chairs the House Ways and Means Committee

On Friday, while the political world was focused on the federal indictment of a former president, the Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee released their new tax plan.

Not two weeks after threatening to refuse to raise the debt ceiling because of their stated concerns over the nation’s mounting debt, Republicans are calling for tax cuts. The nonprofit public policy organization the Committee for a Responsible Budget estimates that over a decade those cuts will cost $80 billion as written and more than $1.1 trillion if made permanent. The frontloading in the measure, they estimate, will make it cost $320 billion by the end of 2025.

Meanwhile, the House Freedom Caucus is also demanding steeper cuts in spending than House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) agreed to in the budget deal he cut with President Joe Biden before agreeing to suspend the debt ceiling. The extremist Republicans have shut down House business for a week to protest what they considered a betrayal. But they cannot admit they want to cut Social Security and Medicare (although McCarthy has promised a commission to study such cuts).

Neither one of their measures will make it through the Senate. Even Republicans there are unhappy with the extremists’ attack on defense spending.

It feels like the end of an era. The idea that tax cuts and spending cuts will automatically expand the economy—the argument that Ronald Reagan rode to the White House in 1981—is no longer believable.

In the last week, two of the key architects of President Ronald Reagan’s administration have died. One was religious broadcaster and minister Pat Robertson, who ushered evangelicals into the Republican Party and blamed feminism, abortion, homosexuality, and “liberal” college professors for what he considered the decline of America.

The other was evangelical James G. Watt, Reagan’s first secretary of the interior. Watt embraced the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, a movement to privatize federal lands in the West or, barring that, to hand them to states to lease as they saw fit. Watt took the theme of privatization to Washington, D.C., where he reversed the government’s policy of protecting the environment and embraced the commercial exploitation of resources, opening nearly all of the nation’s coastal waters to drilling, for example, and easing regulations on strip mining.

Like Robertson, Watt believed he was a warrior in a crusade to save the United States from those who believed that the government should regulate business, provide a basic social safety net, promote infrastructure, and protect civil rights. “I never use the words Democrats and Republicans,” he often said, “It’s liberals and Americans.” He called environmentalists “a left wing cult which seeks to bring down the type of government I believe in.” “Compromise,” he added, “is not in my vocabulary.”

People like Robertson and Watt believed they were at war with those Americans of both parties who approved of the democratic system that had ushered the nation through the Depression, World War II, and the Cold War and had promoted greater economic, racial, and gender equality than the country had ever known before.

That battle to divide the American people along cultural lines in order to dismantle the federal government has, after forty years, led to a Republican Party that has embraced Christian nationalism, abandoning not only the policies of democracy but also democracy itself.

The conclusion of that movement is playing out now over the defense of former president Trump from charges that he committed crimes that threaten our national security. He and some of his most fervent supporters have urged his base toward violence—in words not unlike the ones Trump used before the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, actually—and there is concern that there might be trouble tomorrow in Miami, Florida, where Trump is scheduled to be arraigned.

Miami mayor Francis Suarez, a Republican who reportedly is himself considering a run for the White House, spoke to the press today to make it clear law enforcement officers and emergency personnel are working closely with federal and state partners and are prepared for whatever might happen.

But the Trump base is not what it was in 2016, when Trump commanded the federal government. Right-wing personality Tucker Carlson is off the air and the Fox News Channel is apparently considering legal action against him to keep him from competing with his old employer. The leaders of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, who organized the Capitol attack, are scattered or in prison, and hundreds of those who were at the Capitol that day have discovered the weight of the law.

The number of candidates challenging him suggests Trump is no longer the undisputed leader of the Republican Party. Republican leaders are beholden to his base, though, and they either came out swinging over the weekend to defend Trump or kept silent.

But they, too, appear to have been thinking a bit about the weight of the law as information comes out that key evidence against Trump has come from his former lawyer M. Evan Corcoran, who apparently took notes of Trump’s requests that Corcoran break the law. While Republican presidential candidates former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley and South Carolina senator Tim Scott are still defending Trump, Haley today said that “Trump was incredibly reckless with our national security,” and Scott said the case is “serious.”

They, and politicians like them, are likely making a political calculation. Trump is the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination but is unlikely to win a general election—a network tied to billionaire Charles Koch has begun to target him as unelectable—and they need to appeal to those who dislike Trump as well as those who like him.

But there is something else going on, too. As Trump and his loyalists sound more and more unhinged, both in his defense and in their attacks on everyone who isn’t in their club, people seem to be sick of them. As Charles C. W. Cooke asked in the conservative National Review, “Aren’t you all tired of this crap?”

In contrast, President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have steadfastly refused to engage with the Trump drama and have quietly worked to rebuild the government that forty years of austerity and ideological attacks have undermined. Their determination to rebuild the middle class has led to strong economic growth, high employment, and now inflation at its lowest level since May 2021. Government investment in new technologies and in returning supply chains to the U.S. has led to private investment of more than $220 billion in the economy and the creation of more than 77,000 new jobs, largely in Republican-dominated states. Manufacturing construction has more than doubled in the past year.

As the architects of Reagan’s revolution exit stage right, Republican calls for more tax cuts are barely making the news, while the traditional idea of government investment in the American people appears to be showing its strength.

“The wind is shifting,” the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin tweeted today after listening to Haley and Scott backtrack. “Remember: change happens slowly and then all at once.”

Heather Cox Richardson





























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