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Watching the rules of politics change (and not for the better)

Under the "rules" of American politics, the Republican tax plan should have lost badly. It's an acute reminder that the "rules" are in flux.
Image: A statue of the United States first President, George Washington, is seen under the Capitol dome in Washington
A statue of the United States first President, George Washington, is seen under the Capitol dome in Washington January 2, 2013. The new 113th U.S. Congress...

When it comes to defeating major legislative initiatives, there's no sure-fire script to follow that's guaranteed to work, but there are certain "rules" that tend to be effective.

To defeat a regressive Republican tax plan, for example, opponents would start by trying to convince the American mainstream that the GOP proposal is a bad idea and organize a series of public protests. Critics of the plan might also hope to persuade opinion leaders and powerful advocacy organizations.

Once those tasks were complete, opponents of the Republican bill might ensure the facts on their side, paying careful attention to reports and analyses from the Congressional Budget Office, Joint Committee on Taxation, Tax Policy Center, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The plan's critics would then take that data and make a bullet-proof case that the GOP proposal is a dangerous and misguided idea.

Over the last couple of months, opponents of the Republican tax plan did each of these things -- quite well, in fact. The bill's progressive proponents checked every box, completed every task, and proved that this legislation deserved to be rejected. In short, they created a winning coalition. By the "rules" of American politics, GOP lawmakers had every reason to vote against one of the least popular major proposals in decades.

But when it mattered, Republicans linked arms and supported it anyway. When push came to shove, they simply didn't care about the data or the polls or the protests or the facts.

In other words, the "rules" didn't much matter -- and that's probably because new "rules" are emerging.

Vox's Matthew Yglesias had a good piece along these lines this week, explaining that the recent developments on the GOP tax plan are at odds with "the shared understanding of sophisticated journalists and political scientists of 'how Congress works,'" which may ultimately bring "huge consequences" to "the whole universe of legislative possibility."

[To pass, the GOP tax legislation] would need to be some combination of bipartisan (so it could survive defections), popular (so members would feel confident in bucking interest groups), and backed by some kind of clear mandate (so members would be uncomfortable defecting).The Republican tax bill is none of those things.

The fact that the "rules" of American politics are under strain isn't entirely new. There was, of course, no way Donald Trump could win the Republican nomination, just as there was no way he’d overcome the series of controversies that seemingly made his candidacy so ridiculous, just as there was no way he’d actually win the presidency.

Two years ago, the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato, a prominent political scientist, co-authored a piece on Trump’s electoral prospects. “If Trump is nominated,” the analysis said, “then everything we think we know about presidential nominations is wrong. History has shown that presidential nominations tend to follow a certain set of ‘rules.’”

That was absolutely true at the time, but we now know Republican voters had no use for the "rules."

More recently, the "rules" seemed to make a brief comeback when the Republican health care gambit failed, but let's not forget the details of that fight. It was a bad bill, written in a bad way, based largely on falsehoods and broken promises, which drew opposition from the public, doctors, nurses, insurers, hospitals, patient advocates, and governors from both parties.

But even in this case, the far-right GOP gambit just barely lost. A similar dynamic unfolded when the party pushed its tax plan, and later today, Senate Republicans are going to pass it, the "rules" notwithstanding.

Republican politics are changing in dramatic ways, as a consequence, the standards of American politics are starting to defy the norms and standards that have driven our modern history. Buckle up.