Although the Republican Party has thus far made a spectacular mess of any attempts to repeal – or even modestly revise – Obamacare, they were more successful with another top priority about a week ago, when a tax cut package narrowly passed the U.S. Senate.

To critics, the tax cuts are a gigantic giveaway to the wealthy that will explode the deficit and provide no benefit to working-class Americans. Republicans, however, have been arguing that the benefit of the tax cuts would create enough economic growth to make up any shortfall in revenue, and that argument carried the day – among members of their own caucus, at least.

The immediate question, though, is not just whether Republicans are correct about the impact of the tax cuts on the deficit, but whether the public believes them. Since the bill won’t have any effect on taxes until people file their 2018 returns, it won’t have a direct impact on anyone until long after the next election. Even then, it’s unlikely to produce a sudden, dramatic impact on the economy, so the effects might not truly be felt until after the 2020 presidential election.

We may not know the real impact of this legislation on the deficit or the economy for years to come, but it will nevertheless have an enormous impact on campaigns immediately, beginning with next year’s midterm elections.

Republicans are essentially gambling that, rather than seeing this as backtracking on years of concern about the deficit, voters will believe them that the tax cuts will not end up increasing it.

Now, it’s nothing new for the majority party to suddenly forget their concerns about the debt or the deficit; it’s become almost a given in American politics that the deficit is something the minority party uses as a political cudgel against the majority.


In his first term as a U.S. senator, Barack Obama voted against raising the debt ceiling; later, as president, he decried it when Republicans did the same. During his presidential campaign, he frequently railed against the deficit created under President George W. Bush, but then added to it when he moved in to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

So, in one sense, Donald Trump may be simply perpetuating a long tradition of railing against the deficit as a candidate while adding to it as a president. There’s plenty of reasons for Republicans to believe that, even if voters don’t accept their arguments about the deficit, they won’t be held politically accountable for increasing it. Poll after poll has shown that voters generally want less government spending and lower taxes, but don’t want to cut any specific programs that they like. In a democracy, voters themselves are just as responsible for the debt and the deficit as the politicians.

Every once in a while, though, voters actually do get frustrated about the deficit. We last saw this in a substantial way in 1992, with the independent presidential campaign of Texas businessman H. Ross Perot.

He challenged both parties on spending, and if he hadn’t run such a disorganized campaign, he might well have won.

Even with his bizarre approach – which included dropping out and re-entering the race, and refusing to run a traditional advertising campaign – he got nearly 20 percent of the vote nationwide and placed second in Maine.

That ended the Republican Party’s longtime domination of presidential politics here, and two years later we elected Angus King as our second independent governor. After the campaign, both parties eventually took heed of Perot’s shot across their bow and worked together to reduce the national debt.


Today, the Republican Party’s willingness to risk increasing the deficit might not help Democrats, but it still could hurt Republicans.

If voters again begin to see the deficit and the debt as a major pressing issue, as they have in the past, they might not trust either party to solve the problem. In that case, an independent or third-party candidate could well take advantage of the opening.

To win a presidential election, an independent would need all of Perot’s strengths with none of his weaknesses. The candidate would need to run a tough, disciplined campaign, but it’s not impossible.

Even if such a candidate did not win, though, the two major parties might be scared into coming up with a solution. If both parties managed to set aside their differences long enough to focus on coming up with a permanent fix for the debt and the deficit, that would certainly help all of us.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @jimfossel

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