Why Mitch McConnell can't get tax reform done

  • The GOP can avoid the worst effects of its legislative failures by passing retroactive tax cuts for this year.
  • The problem is, the party is without a real leader on Capitol Hill who can get it done.
  • John Cornyn could be the right guy to take over the cause in the Senate, with Paul Ryan still the best guy to lead the House.

The GOP's failure to pass a long-promised Obamacare repeal and replacement bill has left the entire Republican legislative agenda back on its heels. They haven't accomplished much this session and they're running out of time to show real progress. In fact, if the GOP were a football team, this would be a 3rd down and 11 kind of situation.

But to take that football analogy a bit further, the good news for the Republican team is that they now have a great pass play drawn up that can get them a big score. The bad news is the team needs to find a quarterback.

The "big play" here is a plan pushed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, billionaire publisher Steve Forbes, and many other conservatives to pass tax reform and make all the tax cuts retroactive to the start of 2017. That way, they argue, people will see their paychecks grow as soon as January begins and the economy will get the tax cut boost as soon as possible.

Oh, and that kind of tangible increase in take home pay would go a long way to making the voters believe something is indeed getting done by the Republicans in Washington. The GOP has successfully executed this tactic before, as it did in 2001 when it the Bush tax cuts were passed and taxpayers received rebate checks. Electorally, that helped the Republicans gain seats in the 2002 midterms and President George W. Bush win re-election in 2004.

But who's going to direct this plan through the ranks of a divided Republican Party? All tax and spending legislation must begin in the House of Representatives, and that means Speaker Paul Ryan is going to be initially responsible to lead the effort. Ryan had his troubles during the ill-fated Obamacare repeal efforts, but he did deliver enough votes for that bill to pass the House in May.

The really heavy lifting, just as it was with Obamacare, will be in the Senate. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's days seem numbered after his failure to get the GOP replacement bills passed and the ever-increasing public criticism he's taking from President Donald Trump. Unlike Speaker Ryan, there doesn't seem to be many scenarios where McConnell can hold on to his job unless he makes significant progress on tax reform before the end of the summer.

McConnell may want to turn to a colleague to help him push tax reform to the end zone. The best possible choice sits right under him in the No. 2 Senate GOP position. That would be Texas Senator and Senate Majority Whip, John Cornyn. As whip, Cornyn probably deserves some of the blame for the Obamacare replacement bill failures. But he's avoided any public finger pointing so far. He comes from a much bigger and important Republican state than McConnell's Kentucky and has the luxury of not having to face a re-election campaign until 2020.

Cornyn also has a good claim to make for strong White House support. Earlier this month, the political data site FiveThirtyEight.com noted that Cornyn has supported the Trump agenda more than expected based on a number of different factors. And again, the number of corporations and working people in a state like Texas is much greater than Kentucky.

That gives Cornyn local and national impetus to get tax reform done in a way McConnell doesn't have. It also makes Cornyn the best choice to replace McConnell if he is indeed ousted as Majority Leader in the coming weeks or months.

The other key ingredient here is President Trump. He showed enough interest and enthusiasm in the Obamacare repeal process to act as a public cheer leader, but he lacked leadership when it came to defining specific goals and taking the GOP case to the general public.

Cornyn might be a good messenger for tax reform in the Senate, but without a strong push from the White House he'll meet the same doom on tax reform that McConnell did on health policy.

Time is definitely running out. The nifty retroactive tax cut idea can indeed be the kind of fix that will eliminate the potential beating the Republicans would otherwise take at the polls in the 2018 midterms. But it won't work without the right players on the field and they're definitely not there yet for the GOP.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

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