Steve Israel: The GOP just bet their majority on a tax plan no one likes

The passage of an unpopular GOP tax bill going into a hostile midterm election rings with discomforting familiarity.

It’s 2010 all over again, but in a starkly reverse image.

Back then, Democrats believed, as a tenet, that we had to provide health care to every American. We labored from July 2009 until March 2010 to draft a bill, negotiate within our caucus and even any willing Republican. President Obama famously invited Republican senators to hash out their differences, only the hashing turned out to be sharp hacking at his attempt. 

On the eve of the vote on March 21, Obama’s favorability was 48 percent. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act had an approval rating of 39 percent. The economy seemed bleak to most Americans despite rosier statistics. That was the midterm election environment we were in.  

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Even worse, our majority was threatened by a dispirited, lethargic base. In any midterm election, the top three strategic imperatives are: turn out your base, turn out your base and turn out your base. If a Democratic majority in the House and Senate didn’t pass didn’t ObamaCare, we were electorally doomed. We knew we would lose seats and we were prepared to sacrifice. But we never anticipated losing the majority.

As a matter of principle and politics, we passed ObamaCare. Some House Democrats, in districts won by Republican presidential candidate John McCainJohn Sidney McCainPence, Pompeo urged Trump to clarify Russia remarks: report GOP lawmaker renews call for Trump to release tax returns after Putin summit House conservatives criticize media, not Trump, for Putin furor MORE in 2008, stepped onto the House floor as if it were death row. Some voted for it, some against. All in all, in the next year’s midterm elections, we lost 64 seats and, along with it, the majority. (The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, combined with subsequent court decisions, greased our skid.)

This week, House Republicans are in a similar but even weaker position. At present, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want to use 'adversary' to describe Russia Comey urges Americans to vote for Democrats in midterms Roby wins Alabama GOP runoff, overcoming blowback from Trump criticism MORE’s job approval is at 35 percent — 13 percent lower than Obama’s. The tax bill has an approval rating of 26 percent — another 13 percent less popular than ObamaCare when it passed.

Having failed to pass any significant measures to excite their base, Republicans are caught between probably losing their majority next year by passing no bill and possibly losing their majority next year by passing a bad bill. It’s a dangerous midterm calculation when you have to throw a bone to your base that a broad majority of voters are choking on. 

Not to mention that a bill of this complexity, passed with illegible scrawls in the dead of night, unread by most members of Congress who voted for it, is bound to have unintended glitches. For us, the first glitch was a health-insurance website that crashed. For Republicans, it may be a family accountant giving the bad news of a tax increase. 

Even the strategy of motivating the base is different. In 2010, the Democrats were de-energized. In 2017, the Republican base is energized, but against one another. What is the Republican base these days? Mitt Romney or Stephen Bannon? Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreRoby wins Alabama GOP runoff, overcoming blowback from Trump criticism Once a Trump critic, Ala. rep faces runoff with his support Doug Jones walks tightrope on Supreme Court nominee MORE or Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyJuan Williams: Putin wins as GOP spins Five things to watch for in Trump-Putin summit GOP senators visited Moscow on July 4, warned Russia against meddling in 2018 election: report MORE? Winning a base of the base hardly sounds like a coherent and confident electoral strategy.

Finally, there was this profound difference: Democrats were trying to expand health benefits for everyone. Republicans are wildly skewing tax-cut benefits to a group of the wealthiest. 

For Republicans, this issue does combine their deeply held fidelity to tax cuts with the politics of a midterm election. Republicans are betting that the mantra of tax cuts will reunite their ranks: That this will be a match made in the heaven of the rich getting richer and the rest of us feeding on manna.

Meanwhile, Democrats need only 24 seats to win the majority. The tax bill will be a major issue in only a handful of races, where deductions for state and local taxes and mortgage interest are essential to financial stability and security.

But those turbulent waters will spill out to other districts. The narrative — giant corporations pay less, and you pay more — will define an already bleak electoral environment for Republicans.

The widely popular Children's Health Insurance Program remains unfunded. We’re hurtling to another government shutdown. Medicare and Medicaid will have to be reduced to pay for the tax cuts. Two world leaders with nuclear capabilities are calling each other names.

All of these things are converging in a swirling storm for House Republicans — not a traditional, predictable wave, but more like a tornado. 

In March 2010, there was explosive applause on the House floor when ObamaCare passed. In the Members Only elevator returning us to our offices, Republicans had Cheshire Cat grins. They knew that we may have won the legislative battle, but we may have lost our majority. 

Seven years later, they feel our pain.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years. His next novel, “Big Guns,” will be published in April 2018.