Among the various articles I’ve been reading in the wake of the death of former President George H.W. Bush was a Vox “explainer” that was provocative, to say the least.
The basic thrust of the article was that when H.W. broke his famous pledge (the oft-quoted one-liner at the 1988 Republican National Convention, “Read my lips. No new taxes.”), he turbocharged the GOP’s radical move to the fiscal right. That breach of promise quickly became the conventional explanation for his loss to Clinton, and explains (according to Vox) why virtually all GOP candidates for office subsequently abandoned pledges of prudence and fiscal sanity in favor of hysterical avoidance of anything resembling taxation.
Bush was a traditional “country club” Republican, whose relatively moderate economic and social beliefs contrasted with more right-wing conservatives who had supported Reagan. When Bush lost to Bill Clinton in 1992, Reaganites abandoned a moderate, bipartisan approach to politics, and the Republican Party has moved further to the right ever since.
I tend to be dubious of simple explanations for complex phenomenons, including election losses, but I’m willing to believe that H.W.’s principled decision to raise taxes when the situation required such a move– even though he had pledged not to do so– contributed significantly to his loss. I’m also willing to believe that later Republican candidates for office–already philosophically opposed to taxes (at least taxes levied on their base)–then focused on that single element of Bush’s losing campaign, and cited it to justify the party’s increasingly strident opposition to raising taxes.
Any taxes, for any reasons.
It became a Republican article of faith that failure to be rigidly anti-tax would lead to failure at the ballot box.
The question for 2020 is whether that trope has lost its power.
The one and only undeniable service Donald Trump has rendered to the United States is the massive increase in civic and political participation triggered by his election. People who had previously not paid much attention to the country’s legal and economic structure (people who–in Jon Stewart’s memorable description–“have other shit to do”) were understandably horrified. Those people have become politically relevant in ways they haven’t been for a very long time, and a significant number of them want a government that does more than “get out of the way” of well-connected fat cats and special interests.
They want a government that solves the problems that only government can solve, and (unless I am missing something) they seem to understand that a properly operating and competent government requires resources. That recognition has shifted the political debate from “No new taxes” to the far more reasonable “who should be taxed, for what, and why?”
The current iteration of the GOP, which has more in common with a cult than a traditional political party, faces massive crises. Demography will ultimately be destiny, despite the party’s undeniable skill in gerrymandering and vote suppression. Increased turnout by young people not in thrall to a “small government” mythology is a bad omen. The party’s base of White Christian (mostly) males is dwindling, and legions of moderate business Republicans–already repelled by the party’s culture war bigotries– know snake-oil when they see it, and are abandoning the Grand Old Party in droves.
“No new taxes” won’t cut it anymore, if it ever did. That downward spiral has hit bottom.