Let’s look at a couple of examples from the biggest items on their agenda, starting with health care. The latest Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll finds that an incredible 84 percent of Americans say that it’s important that any replacement of the Affordable Care Act maintains the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid. Even 71 percent of Republicans said so. Which is a problem for the GOP, because rolling back the Medicaid expansion is the centerpiece of the Republican repeal plan. Republicans are arguing among themselves about whether it should be done slowly or quickly, but the whole point of the exercise is to undo that expansion so that they can fund a large tax cut that mostly goes to the wealthy.
The Senate is right now tying itself in knots trying to figure out how to pass something that satisfies the GOP’s conservative principles but that the public won’t despise, and it may be slowly realizing that this is impossible. “I don’t see a comprehensive health-care plan this year,” Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said yesterday, and he’s probably right.
Let’s move on to taxes. At yesterday’s speech announcing his pullout from the Paris climate agreement, President Trump made this little digression:
Our tax bill is moving along in Congress, and I believe it’s doing very well. I think a lot of people will be very pleasantly surprised. The Republicans are working very, very hard. We’d love to have support from the Democrats, but we may have to go it alone. But it’s going very well.
It was certainly interesting to hear that the tax bill is moving along in Congress, because there is no tax bill, neither moving along, standing still or spinning in circles. The administration has produced nothing more than a one-page list of bullet points on taxes, and congressional Republicans haven’t written a bill, either. There have been no hearings, no committee votes, nothing. This is one of those moments when it’s hard to figure out if Trump is lying or genuinely doesn’t realize what’s going on; earlier this week he tweeted:
Yet nothing has been submitted, nothing is moving along and nothing is ahead of schedule.
That’s partly because there are some substantive differences among Republicans about what tax reform should include, but it’s also because they know that whatever bill they come up with is going to be hammered by Democrats for being an enormous giveaway to the wealthy. They could solve that problem by not making it an enormous giveaway to the wealthy, but then what would be the point?
So they realize that it’s not going to be very popular. In other circumstances, that might be less of a problem — they could say, “That’s okay, it’s important to us, so we’ll just push it through.” George W. Bush passed two big tax cuts that were largely similar to what Republicans want to do now, didn’t he? But there’s a difference. When Bush signed his first tax cut in June 2001, his approval rating was at around 55 percent. When he passed his second tax cut in May 2003, his approval was around 65 percent (it was early in the Iraq War, when everything seemed to be going well). Right now Trump is at around or below 40 percent in many polls, so neither he nor Congress is getting the benefit of the doubt.
Are there other Republican initiatives that the public is behind? If there are, they’re awfully hard to find. The Paris accord is extremely popular, so Trump’s decision to pull out probably won’t go over well. The overwhelming majority of the public opposes ongoing GOP efforts to defund Planned Parenthood. There’s little support for the drastic cuts in government spending Republicans advocate. They’re about to start a push to repeal the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law, which House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), in a remarkably shameless bit of Orwellian spin, characterizes as a way to stop indulging Wall Street. But Americans aren’t exactly demanding that the nation’s beleaguered bankers be liberated from their crushing burden of government oversight.
The deep unpopularity of this agenda goes a long way toward explaining why Congress has gotten almost nothing done this year, despite the fact that Republicans control both houses and have a president happy to sign whatever they put on his desk. All Republicans feel nervous these days — their president is unpopular, so is their party, and there’s the real possibility of a Democratic wave in 2018 that sweeps many of them from office. That’s enough to make a lawmaker skittish about doing anything that might make the voters even more disgusted. So the legislative process gets dragged out for longer and longer.
Congressional Republicans complain that all the drama and scandals in the White House suck the air out of Washington and make it harder for them to focus on their agenda, which is true to a degree. But the real problem is that the public just doesn’t want to buy what they’re selling.