Francis Wilkinson: California Republicans pay the price of Trump

Republicans are now governed by the crude demands of tribute and revenge. Since California offends, it must be punished.

FILE - In this June 24, 2014 file photo, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., listens to testimony on Capitol Hill in Washington. A House Republican investigation faults senior IRS officials in the mistreatment of conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status, but could find no link to the White House, according to a report released Tuesday. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Reps. Darrell Issa and Dana Rohrabacher bailed on the House tax bill, and why wouldn’t they? The general theme of the bill is to transfer trillions in wealth from the poor and middle class to the very wealthy and leave so much federal debt behind that spending is constrained for years to come. So far, so good, for Republicans.

But the wealth transfer takes a U-turn for many residents of affluent, high-tax, real-estate-rich, blue-state enclaves like the Southern California districts that the two Republicans represent in Congress. When constituents are about to be hit with a sizable tax increase, Rohrabacher said, “I’m supposed to represent their interests.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., heartily agreed, saying that “any California Republican who votes for the GOP tax scam will be forced to answer why they care so little for their constituents.”

So why did other vulnerable Southern California Republicans, such as Ed Royce and Mimi Walters, vote for the bill? Some of their constituents will be hit, as well.

The bill caps the deduction for state and local taxes, making the deduction less valuable in high-tax states. Issa and Rohrabacher represent districts where a high percentage of tax filers take the deduction for state and local taxes. But an even higher percentage of filers, 46 percent, take the deduction in Walters’ district, and she voted for the bill.

The bill would also reduce, to $500,000, the amount of a home price eligible for a mortgage tax deduction. In California, the median cost of a home is more than $500,000. In Orange County, the median price is $800,000. Parts of Orange County are included in a handful of districts — most represented by Republicans. But the county voted for Clinton last year in its first Democratic presidential turn since 1936.

Loyalty to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a fellow Californian from the Central Valley, has been offered as an explanation for votes in favor of the bill. But loyalty flows two ways, and McCarthy had every incentive to protect his state delegation.

The tax bill, passed by 22 votes, 227 to 205. In other words, there were votes to spare, and no need for endangered California Republicans, seven of whom represent districts won by Clinton in 2016, to walk the plank. Royce, Walters and the others could have followed Issa, Rohrabacher and GOP Rep. Tom McClintock in opposing the bill, protecting themselves even as the rest of the Republican conference bowed before the party donors.

The seeming self-sabotage of a handful of California Republicans may have less to do with McCarthy than with Donald Trump and the reality that the GOP is increasingly a subsidiary of Trumpism. Even in California, where the party has been reduced to white rubble, Republicans are fashioning themselves in Trump’s image.

When Republican leaders in the state legislature sought to arrest years of party decline by compromising with Democrats on a cap-and-trade bill, the GOP rank and file turned on their leadership with vicious political and personal attacks. The coup was brief, ugly and magnificently self-marginalizing. Democrats have super majorities in the legislature and hold every statewide office; to borrow an old saw, they need Republican votes the way a fish needs a bicycle.

The GOP’s state convention in October revealed just how firmly Trump holds the party in a headlock. An excellent report from David Siders and Carla Marinucci of Politico was headlined: “California Republicans Go Gaga for Trump.”

The convention skipped the hand-wringing over demographic decline in a state with a nonwhite majority. (In Royce’s district, about one quarter of registered voters are Hispanic and one fifth are Asian.) Instead, the state party brought in Trump propaganda chief Steve Bannon, who wowed the crowd with the self-actualizing power of MAGA.

“There is an appetite for that kind of in-your-face approach,” California Republican National Committeewoman Harmeet Dhillon told Politico.

By voting with Trump, California Republicans are simply acknowledging that he controls the party and their fates.

“My sense is that, after taking tough votes on issues like Obamacare and generally supporting President Trump, they figure they are in for a dime, in for a dollar of tax changes,” said Thad Kousser, a University of California, San Diego, political scientist in an email interview. “The marginal increase in the furor of liberal and centrist voters may well be outweighed by the advantages of thrilling their base, appeasing their party leaders and fulfilling their sincere policy goals.”

Of course, by increasing taxes on constituents while cutting them on others, California Republicans risk the ire of more than liberals and centrists. But Trumpism is, at essence, a state of perpetual war against the enemies — liberal, centrist, conservative or otherwise — of Trumpism. Republicans are now governed by the crude demands of tribute and revenge. Since California offends, it must be punished. If Orange County Republicans don’t like it, there’s always Alabama.

Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

Francis Wilkinson | Bloomberg View