While the entire political punditry world is caught up in yet another horserace -- this time around, the "who's up/who's down on the fiscal cliff talks" debate -- something astounding is happening within the ranks of the Republican Party. Because major tenets of the party's faith seem to be crumbling. The bedrock ideology of the party is revealing itself, in multiple ways, of having been built on sand all along. These are all rather polite ways of calling the Republicans enormous hypocrites, I realize. But when the shoe fits, the shoe fits, so I offer no apologies for doing so.
There are, of course, core hypocrisies... and then there are campaign promises which nobody really believed anyway. Take, for instance, the fact that Republicans just spent an entire campaign season ripping into Democrats for "cutting Medicare by $750 billion" only to immediately demand deep and significant cuts in Medicare after the election. That's the sort of garden-variety hypocrisy America expects from Republicans, during an election season. But we're going to give them a pass for such things, because everybody says things they later regret out on the campaign trail. We can afford to set this hypocrisy aside because there are so many other deep fissures in Republican dogma right now. Medicare hypocrisy (guess that "Mediscaring" was right, eh, GOP?) is small potatoes, ideologically, right now. Republicans have always been against Medicare, so it really isn't going to change their hymn book after the campaign promises are long forgotten, to put it another way. There are bigger fish to fry, here.
Republican orthodoxy has said, since Reagan's time, that tax cuts solve everything. The reason we are now at the fiscal cliff is that this is not correct. It's just flat-out wrong. Tax cuts do not "pay for themselves." If they did, then we wouldn't even be discussing not extending the Bush tax cuts, because the federal government would be so awash in money right now that it would be laughable to do so. This is not, to put it mildly, the situation we find ourselves in. The Bush tax cuts did not in fact pay for themselves, China paid for them.
When the Bush tax cuts were enacted, they had a ten-year sunset clause. They were supposed to run for ten years, and then expire. There's a reason for this, and a reason why the Republican-held Congress under George W. Bush never made them permanent (even though he begged them to do so, repeatedly). The reason is they were always designed to explode the budget, starting in the eleventh year (and beyond). All the tax cuts fully kicked in by the end of the period, and projecting out the decade which followed showed monster deficits as far as the eye could see. This is precisely where we are today. In fact, we're actually two years later than that, because the Bush tax cuts were all extended in 2010 until now. Again, this extension did not "pay for itself" at all.
Republicans have all but jettisoned the "tax cuts pay for themselves" rhetoric already, though, so this isn't as ground-shaking as it might earlier have been. What has replaced it is the single-minded obsession with the deficit and the national debt. The tune has changed to: "The deficit/debt is the enormous problem America has to solve, by any means necessary." But, once again, this major tenet of Republicanism is showing itself to be a house made of straw. Because Republicans have recently started pointing out that what the Democrats want to do won't solve the deficit/debt immediately (by next Tuesday, say), and therefore isn't even worth doing at all. Their logic seems to be "Raising taxes on the wealthy isn't going to immediately solve the whole deficit problem forever, therefore we're not going to do it." Republicans are now arguing for a policy that is going to increase the deficit, to put this another way. This should be getting more media attention than it currently is, but I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for that to happen.
To see the next flaming ball of hypocrisy over in Republicanland, you have to separate out the taxes which are scheduled to rise (on the first of next year) into three groups. The first of these are the Bush tax cuts on the 98 percent of the workforce that doesn't rake in a cool quarter-million-dollar paycheck every year. The second are the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest workers (the top two percent). And the third group is the payroll tax holiday for all working Americans that Obama passed when he extended the Bush tax cuts for two years back in 2010. All of these tax cuts were temporary, when initially passed. The Bush tax cuts lasted a decade, until Obama extended them for two years. The payroll tax cut was initially only one year long, but got extended for a second year.
Republicans right now are arguing that the payroll tax cuts can expire, which will raise this tax rate by two percent on anyone making less than around $110,000 a year, and by a smaller percent on those with larger salaries (showing the regressive nature of the tax). The Republican line is that these were "temporary" tax cuts, therefore letting them expire by doing nothing is OK (even among Norquistians) because it's "not really raising taxes," somehow.
Both Democrats and Republicans are for extending the Bush tax cuts for the 98 percent of workers under the $250K line. However, Republicans are arguing against allowing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy two percent to expire. As far as they're concerned, this would be "raising tax rates" -- and doing so, of course, is rank heresy in the Church of Norquist.
So, to recap: allowing a temporary payroll tax rate cut to expire is fine, because it isn't really "raising taxes" due to its temporary nature; but allowing a temporary income tax rate cut to expire on the top two percent is definitely not fine, because it is really "raising taxes." Another pillar of the Republican credo shows cracks, and then bursts into a hypocritical pile of rubble, to put this another way. Is allowing a temporary tax cut to expire OK or not? Or is it just OK when it benefits the wealthiest, and not OK when it benefits everyone? Ideologically, you really can't have this both ways, but that is the current Republican position. Once again: mainstream media "journalists," perhaps there's a story here? Sigh.
The final ideological pretzel in the fiscal cliff debate is perhaps the head-scratchiest of the lot. This one is truly in the "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" category, folks. It's such blatant idiocy that even some Republicans are already revolting against the entire concept.
John Boehner has signaled his willingness to contemplate supporting additional federal "revenue." This is momentous, and I give him a lot of credit for even getting to this position. Think about it: the last time any Republican supported any tax increase of any type was when George H.W. Bush went back on his "Read my lips" pledge. Yes, it has indeed been over two decades since Republicans voted for a tax increase. How time flies, eh?
Historic as this is, however, Boehner is bending over backwards to fit his new position into orthodox Republican dogma. Boehner, so far, has fought hard against the idea that tax rates should go up for the wealthiest two percent, instead offering to "close loopholes and cap deductions." In more-normal times in Washington, this argument would only be of interest to the wonkiest political scientists and economists. But Boehner is justifying his hard stance against raising rates with complete and utter nonsense. Which nobody's really bothered to point out, much.
Unless Boehner is secretly trying to shift some of the new tax burden from the wealthiest two percent onto the upper middle class (which is indeed a real possibility, since we haven't seen his details yet), his logic holds water about as well as a sieve. Boehner states that raising tax rates would be horrendous for the economy, because all those "job-creators" would go off in a tiff and refuse to fund the American economy, leading to millions being thrown out of work and, I don't know, the Hunger Games, or something. If that sounds like mocking the Republican position, well, it's a pretty easy one to mock, so I sincerely apologize for that. But Boehner simply cannot square this stance with his offer to cut deductions and loopholes for the wealthy.
It's the same damn money, John. How many of us are going to behave differently because of which box on our tax forms we fill in? If raising a millionaire's taxes by $35,000 because the rates are figured differently is going to cause that millionaire to not hire people, then why should raising his taxes by $35,000 through limiting his deductions be any different? Some Republicans are already in revolt over this, because they (quite correctly) see both as the same thing. It's the same damn money, in other words. They've repeated the "raising taxes on job-creators is bad" refrain for so long that they cannot see any difference between changing the 1040 tax tables and changing the way you fill out Schedule A. If a millionaire's taxes go up, they go up -- it doesn't matter which box gets filled in on what form, the end result is the same: that millionaire sends in more money to the federal government.
This is the biggest hypocrisy of all, really, because it is the heart of the battle both the politicians and the media have focused on, and yet nobody's really taken the time yet to point out that the Emperor's new clothes don't seem to be there at all. John Boehner is caught in his own Republican doublethink, and is arguing both sides of an ideological question all by himself. It's not just doublethink, it's actually doubledebate. Boehner has to somehow convince his fellow Republicans that taking the same amount of money from a wealthy taxpayer is somehow orthodox Republican ideology when done one way, but a grievous sin if handled slightly differently. Six of one, Boehner will argue mightily, is not a half-dozen of the other.
Which is ridiculous, of course. The hypocrisy is so dense you can slice it up and sell chunks of it as souvenirs. Republicans are going through a much bigger shakeup than anyone in the punditocracy has so far realized. This is not just a matter of one faction against another on the Republican side of the aisle. We're instead at an monumental turning point in Republican orthodoxy -- a theological crisis on the order of Martin Luther nailing his blog post to the church door. Because it turns out that tax cuts don't actually pay for themselves. Temporary tax cuts can either expire or not, but arguing for one temporary tax cut to expire while keeping another one -- on ideological grounds -- is nothing more than having an argument with yourselves. Either the deficit is the overwhelming issue facing America, to be attacked with every tool available, or it's not. But it's hard to argue both at the same time. And finally, taxing millionaires one way is exactly the same thing as taxing them another way, ideologically. It's the same damn money, folks. But, increasingly among orthodox Republicans, these major ideological tenets are being both defended and attacked by the very same people, at the very same time.
It is, in fact, a profound crisis of faith among the true believers in the Republican Party. It will be interesting to see how it all works out, and it'd be a lot more interesting if the media would pick up on any of these bedrock contradictions in what the Republicans are standing for at the moment.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant