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A senatorial clash that explains what's wrong with the tax fight

Republicans don't seem to understand why Orrin Hatch lost last night's argument with Sherrod Brown.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-UT., talks to reporters as he walks to the weekly Senate policy luncheons in the U.S. Capitol on June 4, 2013.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-UT., talks to reporters as he walks to the weekly Senate policy luncheons in the U.S. Capitol on June 4, 2013.

If you've spent any time on social media today, you've probably come across the clip of Senate Finance Committee Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) clashing with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) ahead of a vote on the Republican tax plan last night. That's probably a good thing: the quarrel helps define the terms of the broader policy fight.

If you missed it, Brown explained, accurately, that the Senate GOP tax plan isn't intended to help the middle class; it's written to benefit the richest Americans. Hatch, visibly angry, appeared to take great personal offense.

"I come from the poor people, and I have been here working my whole stinkin' career for people who don't have a chance, and I really resent anybody that says I'm just doing it for the rich. Give me a break. I think you guys overplay all the time, and it gets old. And frankly, you ought to quit it."I get kind of sick and tired of it. True, it's a nice political play. It's not true.... What you said was not right. That's all I'm saying, I come from the lower middle class, originally. We didn't have anything. So don't spew that stuff on me. I get a little tired of that crap. Let me just say something. If we worked together, we could pull this country out of every mess it is in. We could do a lot of the things that you are talking about, too.... [T]his bullcrap that you guys throw out here really gets old after a while."

Republicans are apparently under the impression that Hatch's fiery harangue bested the Ohio Democrat, and it's worth taking a moment to understand why that's ridiculous.

Brown's argument was, at its core, substantive: non-partisan analyses of the Senate Republican tax plan make clear that it would disproportionately benefit the wealthiest Americans, and raise taxes on millions of middle-class families. That's not some lazy "political play"; it's an argument backed up by evidence.

Hatch had an opportunity to defend his proposal on the merits and/or explain why he disagreed with the non-partisan assessments, but he chose instead to make this personal. The Utah Republican is apparently under the impression that his upbringing matters, and factual descriptions of his legislation don't.

Hatch is "tired" of Democrats criticizing tax breaks for the rich? I suspect Democrats are equally tired of Hatch and his Republican brethren demanding tax breaks for the rich.

Indeed, it's hard not to wonder if Hatch's outburst was the result of his genuine belief that Sherrod Brown's argument is "bullcrap" or if it was because the truth hurts. The Republican National Committee this morning highlighted the committee clash and said the GOP chairman "set the record straight" -- which, in reality, is the opposite of what actually happened.

Stepping back, what made the Hatch/Brown clash so memorable was the degree to which it captured the entire policy debate in just three minutes. As the Washington Post's Greg Sargent put it, the exchange "perfectly captured the GOP's whole handling of the tax debate -- in all its dishonesty, misdirection and bottomless bad faith."

If recent history is any guide, the process will not improve. As the far-right tax plan heads to the floor -- Hatch's Finance Committee approved the GOP proposal on a party-line vote last night -- Democrats will no doubt tell their conservative colleagues, "The data shows that your tax plan actually punishes the middle class while rewarding Americans who are already wealthy."

To which Republican senators will effectively respond, "Shut up."

Postscript: Note, as part of diatribe, Hatch added, "If we worked together, we could pull this country out of every mess it is in." Hatch was in the process of pushing a partisan tax plan, written in secret, passed without so much as a meaningful hearing.

Perhaps this was the wrong time to lecture committee members on the benefits of bipartisan cooperation.