Democrats Might be Repeating their 2016 Mistakes in Alabama

polling-station-2643466_960_720With 24 hours to go until Alabamians vote in the season finale of “Who Wants to Elect a Pedophile?” it appears the closing argument from Democratic candidate Doug Jones and his backers boils down to, “Please, please don’t embarrass our state.”

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) made that pitch this weekend, as did Alabama’s senior senator Richard Shelby (R). Shelby, though not a Jones supporter, said he could not back GOP candidate and perpetual controversy machine Roy Moore because, “I think Alabama deserves better.”

As the Washington Post’s James Hohmnann recounts today, Alabama’s business and media elite are piling on, too, making the case that a Moore win would set back the state’s economy and reputation:

A pro-Jones Super PAC called Highway 31 has spent $3.6 million on the race. “Don’t let Alabama’s good name be tarnished,” a narrator says in the group’s final radio ad. “Don’t wash it all away. Don’t let Roy Moore become Alabama.”

Even Jimmy Kimmel is getting into the act, donating to Jones’ campaign. The allegations against Moore are so serious that it may end up turning this safe red seat into a blue one. But as they look ahead to 2018, are Democrats falling into the same trap they walked right into in last year’s Presidential election?

While it does not appear (yet) that Vladimir Putin is helping Roy Moore win, the similarities to 2016 are striking – and in a state that Donald Trump won by 28 points, those parallels matter.

In 2016, a sober-minded but generally uninspiring Democrat took on a flamboyant outsider with a penchant for controversy and a sexual harassment scandal – and lost. (Yes, it is unfair to call Jones – who prosecuted the 1963 Birmingham bombers – uninspiring. But is anybody in Alabama talking about Jones right now?)

Like Jones, Hillary Clinton had the support of the “establishment,” and numerous Republicans came out against Trump, warning that he would be a disaster as President. But that did not help with the kinds of swing voters who were drawn to Trump’s burn-the-place-down approach to politics. Many opted to stick it to the establishment. And if that worked for Trump in places like Michigan and Wisconsin, it may very well work for  Moore in Alabama.

Alabama, of course, is the state whose very existence is predicated upon giving elites the finger. It was fourth to secede from the Union in 1861. It also gave us George Wallace, and while Lynyrd Skynyrd is actually from Jacksonville, Florida (h/t Wikipedia), their ode to the Cotton State makes it clear that Alabamians don’t like being told what to do by northern folk.

Consequently, exhortations from business leaders, journalists, celebrities and even the state’s beloved senior senator – all card-carrying members of the Establishment – to oppose Moore may be for naught.

Or worse, may drive some Alabamians to choose Moore.  If you are a conservative Republican who is troubled by the accusations against Moore but nonetheless agrees with him on some issues, being told by elites that everything Moore (and you) stand for will tarnish Alabama’s good name might just be enough of a nudge to get you to pull his lever in the voting booth.

The Alabama race has one other parallel to the 2016 election: Democrats are making the race all about the Republican candidate. And as a result, the Democratic candidate is not making a compelling case for his election. Does anybody in Alabama know what Doug Jones will do for the economy, or national security? Other than being “not-Roy Moore,” it’s not clear what he stands for. That was Hillary’s problem as well. Telling voters that Trump would embarrass our country did not resonate with people worried about pocketbook issues.

Of course, nobody can predict how the election will turn out. And when you go up against a candidate as troubled as Roy Moore, making the election all about Roy may be sufficient.  But this race is, arguably, exceptional. As Democrats start to ponder 2018 and beyond, they need to remember that elections are won or lost on the issues that matter to the voters.



Tax Reform’s Seismic Shift that Nobody’s Talking About

6757821397_ba181435ea_bNobody disputes that if Congressional Republicans and the White House succeed in dragging their gargantuan tax plan over the finish line, it will reshape massive parts of the economy (and keep accountants in business for years to come).

But its impacts go way beyond the nation’s fiscal state. In fact, this bill may mark a watershed moment in conservatives’ decades-long movement to remove the federal government as a factor in the civic life of the country.

On the chopping block in the House or Senate bills – and in some cases, both – are scores of tax incentives for everything from orphan drugs and medical devices to historic preservation and energy efficiency. Even tax credits for adoption were slated for elimination, until Republicans remembered that humans like adoptions. Other changes, like the increase in the standard deduction, would render many tax incentives effectively useless.

True, some or all of these incentives may find their way back into the final bill. But there’s little doubt Republicans don’t like them. Why? The bill’s supporters maintain that these are “special-interest deductions that increase rates and complicate Americans’ taxes.” And nobody likes a special interest, other than their own.

Besides, Republicans argue that businesses and families won’t miss these deductions and credits since they come along with a hefty tax cut (putting aside for the moment analyses that show the tax cuts aren’t as generous as advertised, unless your last name is Kardashian, Gates, or, well, Trump).

But the real reason conservatives want to gut these incentives is more fundamental:  they are, in their view, nothing more than social engineering run amok. “We’re going to tax the hell out of you,” is how they perceive shifty-eyed bureaucrats thinking, “but if you do things that are socially acceptable (read: politically correct), we’ll kindly let you keep a little more of your hard-earned money.” In their view, only a Democrat would support tax incentives like these (and many do).

But here’s the thing: Republicans used to love tax breaks, and Democrats? Not so much.

In the New Deal and Great Society eras, if you wanted to address a social problem, you created a program that spent taxpayer funds directly: Pell Grants for education, Section 8 for housing, and so on. That all changed when Ronald Reagan declared that government was the problem. Ever since, Republicans have gone to war against direct government spending.

But cutting taxes? That’s far more popular than creating spending programs. And in the conservative world, a dollar refunded to the taxpayer stimulates the economy far more than a dollar spent by Uncle Sam.

Progressives, meanwhile, would much prefer direct spending on government programs. For one thing, tax incentives tend to skew towards the wealthy. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes that more than half of the money from these tax expenditures goes to the top 20 percent income-earners – and nearly one out of every six dollars out the door goes to the one-percenters. Second, running social programs through the tax code provides far less oversight and fewer guarantees the funding goes to its intended recipients.

For the last two decades, however, Democrats have learned to love tax incentives (or at least dislike them less), since creating new spending programs has become politically impossible. When Bill Clinton announced in 1995 that the “era of big government is over,” conservatives may as well have strung a Mission Accomplished banner across the Capitol.

The fact is, tax breaks represent big government just as much as direct spending – even more. In 2015, tax expenditures drained the federal coffers of more than $1.2 trillion, more than spending on all defense and non-defense programs combined. That’s why they’re called, in DC-speak, tax expenditures. You’re still spending taxpayer money, but in a far more opaque way.

As a result, the IRS has a bigger role over government policy than most other agencies do. The federal government “spent” more than $7 billion for energy-related tax incentives in 2017, as much as half of the Energy Department’s entire non-nuclear budget. And while the tax experts at the IRS are pretty smart, they aren’t experts in energy – or in R&D, or adoption, or medical devices, or the countless other items that qualify for tax breaks.

Tax expenditures are a lousy way of making policy.  But in the “government-is-bad” era, they’re the only way for Washington to achieve social policy goals.

That’s why the current tax plan portends an ominous future for those who support a federal role in domestic affairs. Having made direct spending politically unfeasible, conservatives are now furiously working to make tax incentives equally obsolete. Once they’re gone, conservatives will be one step closer making the federal government so small they can, in the words of ant-tax crusader Grover Norquist, drown it in a bathtub.

At the end of the day, the Frankenstein monster that is the current tax bill may fall short of conservatives’ goal of eliminating tax expenditures completely. But their efforts will likely continue. The federal government hasn’t been drowned in the bathtub quite yet. But the water level is getting awfully high.