- - Monday, October 2, 2017


The looming congressional battle over the Republicans’ big tax-overhaul plan is likely to accentuate a fundamental political reality of our time, which can be distilled into three sentences: The American polity has become politically dysfunctional. President Trump was elected to rectify the dysfunction. He doesn’t know how do it.

Mr. Trump failed spectacularly in this imperative with the Republican effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. That act, known informally as Obamacare, has proved to be highly problematical, with premiums rising and health care choices declining. A Gallup poll indicated nearly a third of Americans say they have been hurt by the legislation. And yet Republicans, with control of both congressional houses and the presidency, can’t get rid of it.

The fault lies primarily with the president. We live, for good or ill, in a presidential system. Big things don’t happen in our country without strong and deft presidential leadership. Mr. Trump didn’t provide it. He didn’t master the details of the legislation sufficiently to lobby lawmakers effectively. He didn’t make any serious effort to rally the American people behind the Republican initiative. And, most important, he didn’t seek the kind of bill that could break up the partisan deadlock of our time.

So now the Republican Party is laying aside the Obamacare repeal effort and turning to overhauling the tax code. And the Republicans are employing the same strategy — seeking to pass major legislation exclusively with Republican votes in a House with only a 23-seat majority and a Senate with a two-seat edge. It can’t be done, particularly since Senate Republicans include three mavericks — Susan Collins, John McCain and Rand Paul — with no party loyalty at all and a penchant for slamming party leaders at times of their greatest vulnerability.

The central problem is the political deadlock in a Congress that resides on a knife’s edge of near parity in political makeup. But the congressional deadlock can’t be broken until the political deadlock in voter sentiment is broken out in the country. That’s a presidential responsibility. Mr. Trump has defaulted on it.

In recent weeks, as the big tax battle approached, we have heard many references to the famous 1986 overhaul bill that is a hallmark of Ronald Reagan’s presidential legacy. But that bill was the culmination of a tax debate set in motion six years earlier, when Reagan thrust into the American consciousness the view that high tax rates were strangling business activity and economic growth. As president, Reagan hammered away on the issue until political sentiment in the land in behalf of the Reagan message became irresistible.

In July 1986, the Democratic-controlled House approved Reagan’s tax-cut bill by a vote of 238-195, with 48 Democrats joining Republicans on the measure. The Senate went bonkers on it — 89-11, with 37 Democrats supporting Reagan and his call for “across-the-board” tax cuts that cut rates proportionately for all taxpayers (even the wealthy). The key was popular sentiment. House Speaker Tip O’Neill said Reagan’s televised speech on the subject just before the congressional vote set off “a telephone blitz [to members] like this nation has never seen.”

After the vote, Democratic House leaders called Reagan from O’Neill’s office to offer congratulations. “Well, Mr. President,” said the Democrats’ top House tax writer, Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, “you’re tough. You beat us. It means you’re working at your job.”

Then came a recession, largely attributed (erroneously) to the country’s growing budget deficits, and lawmakers forced Reagan into a new tax-writing effort to raise revenues. Having won his cherished rate cuts (to a top rate of 50 percent), Reagan wouldn’t yield on that, so the effort centered on ending many of the distortive tax preferences that riddled the code. And that created a kind of new consensus on tax policy: Rates should come down, far lower than anything seen in decades; and those special interest preferences should be eliminated to pay for the rate cuts.

That was the philosophical synthesis that undergirded the famous 1986 bill, which cleared the House on a 292-136 vote and the Senate by 74-23. But that bill nearly faltered when the Democratic House declined to slash tax preferences sufficiently to bring down rates to a level that actually got people excited. It wasn’t until Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob Packwood decided his party must go bold on eliminating tax breaks that the legislation finally gathered serious steam. That allowed a top individual rate of just 28 percent — down from 70 percent when Reagan took office.

Note that the key here was that the American people bought in following strong presidential leadership on bold, clear and simple political messages: first, that high tax rates were stifling the economy; second, that low rates couldn’t make up for inefficiencies in the tax code wrought by unjustifiable tax preferences; and, finally, that getting rid of those nettlesome special-interest breaks could enhance business activity while paying for low rates, which goosed the economy even further.

We see nothing like this policy coherence in the current tax debate and certainly nothing like the bipartisanship that emerged from that coherence — or the buy-in from voters across the country that greeted this crisp and clear messaging.

As Rostenkowski told Reagan back in 1981, he was working at his job — not just in promoting his agenda — but in crafting it for maximum political force. That’s one big difference between Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump.

• Robert W. Merry, editor of “The American Conservative,” is the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His next book, “President McKinley: Architect of the American Century,” is due out from Simon & Schuster in November.

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