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January 20, 2018

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Tax stance is tactic as well as substance

Strong stand gives GOP upper hand in bargaining

Conservatives launched a brutal attack last week on seven Assembly Republicans who voted for a voter-approved hotel room tax increase, with Ronda Kennedy announcing a primary challenge to Assemblyman Lynn Stewart for his vote on the issue.

The firebrand blogger Chuck Muth, who, though not a Republican, appears to be all but running the Nevada Republican Party, blasted out an e-mail: “The good Lord did not create Republicans to vote for higher taxes. That’s why he created Democrats. And Republican primaries!”

All the polling, especially when it comes to taxing tourists, suggests most people don’t share Muth and his pals’ position, which sounds extreme to many people. After all, the great and good President Ronald Reagan raised taxes several times during his presidency.

But there’s a method to this demand for ideological purity.

Let’s go back to the 1980s, when a young turk conservative operative named Grover Norquist founded Americans for Tax Reform. The Republican Party had been moving to the right since 1964, when Sen. Barry Goldwater won the nomination for president and said “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

Now with conservatives on the rise in the 1980s, Norquist saw his chance to purge the party of remaining moderates, especially on his signature issue of taxes. He began demanding Republicans sign a pledge not to raise taxes. When former President George H.W. Bush took his own pledge (“Read my lips”), broke the pledge and then lost, the Norquist method suddenly swept the Republican ranks.

Running for office required taking the pledge, and breaking it was political suicide.

It was a genius move because suddenly, among press and public, it was conventional wisdom: Republicans will oppose each and every tax increase every time.


In many places, including Nevada, Republican-controlled legislatures went further, requiring supermajorities to get any tax increase through.

On the fiscal side, the Democrats don’t really have an equivalent non-negotiable. There’s no Democratic orthodoxy that says, “Never ever will we cut education funding” or something like that.

The only thing close to that for Democrats would be making abortion illegal.

But on taxing and spending matters, Republicans walk into every negotiation with an advantage because it’s settled opinion that Republicans don’t raise taxes, so to get them to agree to it, you have to give enormous concessions.

(To get an idea of the leverage Republicans have as the Legislature considers a tax increase, imagine what Republicans would have to give up in exchange for getting Democrats to agree to make abortion illegal.)

Muth hates taxes and would probably like to see the Legislature dismantle most of the government and privatize the schools. But there’s a nuance here: He also wants to hold together that Norquist discipline, because once it becomes conventional wisdom that Republicans are willing to raise taxes under some circumstances, then the political dynamic on taxes and spending changes in every future Legislature.

Even worse, voters might start to see Republicans as trying to solve problems such as substandard schools and health care and clogged roads. Then voters might start to think that they’re a centrist party with appeal to average people. Then they might end up in the majority and have to govern.

Sometimes it seems like that’s Muth’s worst nightmare.

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