Opinion: The GOP shell game exposed

In an internal poll leaked to Bloomberg News, the Republican National Committee bemoans the fact that the GOP tax cut is nowhere near as popular as Republicans had hoped, concluding that “we’ve lost the messaging battle on the issue.”

According to the survey, 61 percent of voters believe the GOP tax cuts were designed to benefit “large corporations and rich Americans.” Just 30 percent believe they were intended to help middle-class families. In other words, by a 2-1 margin, people get it. They understand that the tax cuts were designed to benefit corporations already enjoying their highest after-tax profits in history; they recognize it was intended to boost wealthy Americans already collecting a higher share of national income than at any time in almost a century.

But it gets worse: According to the GOP’s own internal polling, voters have also begun to recognize that by creating huge deficits, tax cuts pose a serious threat to programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, and in fact are designed to achieve just that purpose.

As the GOP report puts it, “most voters believe that the GOP wants to cut back on these programs in order to provide tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy,” a development that it blames on “a fairly disciplined Democrat attack against the recent tax cuts.”

I’m always dubious about an explanation that relies on Democrats showing message discipline. And in this case, a better suspect is easily found: The Republicans themselves.

To cite just a few examples:

In a recent interview, Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow brushed aside projections that the tax cuts will add $1.5 trillion to the national debt over the next decade. “People are quick to blame deficits on tax cuts,” Kudlow said. “Well, I don’t buy that.”

Instead, Kudlow explained, the problem is “large entitlement” programs such as Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid, If Republicans hold Congress, he predicted, efforts will begin next year to prune those programs back.

House Speaker Paul Ryan also believes tax cuts don’t add to the deficit. Instead, “the issue is entitlements. It always has been and always will be,” Ryan said earlier this month, identifying Medicare as the “biggest entitlement that’s got to have reform.”

“We’re going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit,” Ryan has said. “… Frankly, it’s the health-care entitlements that are the big drivers of our debt.”

In an interview last year with Politico, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida made that identical argument: Tax cuts don’t drive up the deficit, no matter what economists and the Congressional Budget Office might tell you. Instead, we “have to bring spending under control, and not discretionary spending. That isn’t the driver of our debt. The driver of our debt is the structure of Social Security and Medicare for future beneficiaries.”

And it’s not just Republican words; it is Republican actions as well. The 2019 budget passed this summer by the House Budget Committee proposes to cut Medicare by $537 billion over the next decade. Cuts to Medicaid and and other health programs would slash another $1.5 trillion, all in the name of cutting a deficit made much worse by tax cuts.

In other words, if voters are finally beginning to recognize the fiscal shell game that Republicans have been playing, it’s not because of anything the Democrats have done. It’s because they’ve finally begun to pay attention to what the Republicans themselves have said and done.