Last weekend, Senate Republicans chose billionaire donors in private jets over working voters around their kitchen tables in a 2am, partisan vote of an unpopular bill that reorders massive portions of the American economy.
Note to the D.C. GOP: What happened the last time Congress voted at an ungodly hour on a piece of opaque, party-line, and very easily-demagogued legislation that rewrote massive pieces of the American economy? If you don’t know, ask the 63 House Democrats and six Senate Democrats who lost their jobs in an absolute electoral tsunami after Republicans tied them to said bill.
At face value, the tax bill is just a particularly good example of the inexplicable conservative urge to redistribute wealth up in the disproven hopes that it will make its way down. But there’s more than meets the eye. Washington Republicans made an under-the-surface calculation knowing scores of Republican-held seats are at severe risk. Trump headwinds are hurricane-force; look no further than this year’s off-year elections in which Republicans were absolutely swamped in the affluent suburbs outside of Washington, Richmond and New York last month and at the wave of retirements already taking hold in the House as panicked, vulnerable members scramble for the exit. Bluntly, they need the money.
The tax bill was a mad dash for campaign cash, the distorted thinking being to reward the richest donors now and—in a Citizens United Hail-Mary runaround—reap the dividends during call time between now and the midterms. Because I worked on Capitol Hill, I know the legislative branch’s real zone of activity is not committee chambers; lawmakers make their real honey in hive-like tiny rooms in each party’s headquarters. Depending on state and cycle, well over 60 percent of a lawmaker’s time is dedicated to schmoozing the rich and cold-calling for dollars. This is why members have far more face time with rich donors than middle class voters, whom they deal with sporadically and occasionally, such as at a town hall packed by interest groups or walking through a state fair shaking hands once a year. Call time gives donors ample time to vent; push their priorities and withhold support based on lack of delivery; and, if they are unhappy, an opportunity to explain why they aren’t donating. That’s Washington for you. In the lawmaking process, the GOP isn’t representing Iowa or Kentucky; they’re making the sausage their richest check writers want to consume.
This bill was a big-ugly conservative catch-all Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity wish list. Decades of DeVos and Koch campaign checks were cashed on Friday night and thousands of hours of call-time chats came through.
But frustratingly, Democrats didn’t rise to the occasion and present an alternative to the GOP. Knowing what was coming from Donald Trump and the right side of the aisle, where was our preemptive tax bill, one that contained an across-the-board tax cut for voters making under $75,000, a small business tax cut, a federal minimum wage hike, and student loan relief? Of course it wouldn’t have made it to a vote, but it would have given Democrats something to campaign on in real-time. Where were the rallies in Cleveland, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Detroit selling if not a bill, then a movement? D.C. Democrats played a tired D.C. game on stale D.C. terms. So what if House majority leadership would prevent the measure coming to the floor? It would have given Democrats a chance to campaign on fresh ideas with fresh faces and an opportunity to create a movement around our ideas for the middle class. You can’t just object from your Twitter feed and the confines of cable news green rooms. That’s not meeting the moment, and this was a missed opportunity.
Is Chuck Schumer’s and Nancy Pelosi’s bet that the tax bill will give the party and its (thus far excellent) recruits an extra anvil to hang around the necks of Republican candidates and incumbents? Probably, and it just might work. After all, Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Manchin can’t campaign against Donald Trump, who remains popular at home. But Democrats in deep-red states like West Virginia and North Dakota can certainly wage war against a tax hike for those making under $75,000, as most of the population of their lower- and middle-income heavy states do.
In fact, Donald Trump just threw red-state Democrats a lifeline.
But it’s up to Democrats to use it. We need to develop a ruthlessness gene, which has thus far eluded our side of the aisle. If we don’t turn the shit sandwich that Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell just gave us and whip up an electoral delicacy, we don’t deserve to win. Any Democrat who doesn’t use this tax bill every day as a hammer (or a scarlet letter F to force the opposition to wear, since this bill is such a fuck-you to voters) between now and the midterms—and on to 2020—shouldn’t be in or running for office. It’s that simple.
Jon Reinish is a native New Yorker who works in political communications, strategy and media. His opinions are his own and can be taken with a deer lick’s worth of salt. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram: @jonreinish