When Republicans finally took control of the entire federal government, they promised that the results would be something we had never seen before. And so it has come to pass. What party could say that it wrote a bill to cut taxes that turned out to be one of the most unpopular pieces of legislation in history?
A new USA Today-Suffolk University poll finds support for the bill at only 32 percent. Other polls have shown similar results: 29 percent support in a Reuters poll, 29 percent in a Quinnipiac poll, 35 percent in a CBS News poll. The percentage of people who say the bill will benefit the middle class is tiny (17 percent in the USA Today poll), while majorities consistently say the bill will primarily help the wealthy. As Harry Enten recently pointed out, this bill is not only one of the most unpopular pieces of legislation in history; it’s also less popular than bills that raised taxes.
So how did Republicans manage to create such a phenomenal turkey of a bill? And what happens now?
Let’s begin with the first question. Here are some of the mistakes Republicans made in writing this bill:
They had lots of ambition but little patience. Republicans didn’t just want to pass a regular old tax cut; they wanted to do a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code of the kind that hadn’t been attempted in 30 years. And to a degree, that’s what they’ve accomplished. Just about every taxpayer is going to be affected by the changes they’re making, some of which are radical. But while previous tax reform efforts took years, they wanted to do it all in a matter of a few months. They held almost no hearings, conducted most of their work in secret and are encountering the problems that you’d expect this kind of haste to produce. Erica Werner reports on what is happening:
Questionable special-interest provisions have been stuffed in along the way, out of public view and in some cases literally in the dead of night. Drafting errors by exhausted staff are cropping up and need fixes, which must be tackled by congressional negotiators working to reconcile competing versions of the legislation passed separately by the House and the Senate.
And the melding process underway has opened the door to another frenzy of 11th-hour lobbying as special interests, including President Trump’s rich friends, make one last dash for cash before the final bill speeds through both chambers of Congress and onto Trump’s desk. Passage is expected the week before Christmas.
They were plainly hoping to cram the thing through before opposition had the chance to build, but instead it’s support that hasn’t had the chance to build. That’s because …
They forgot about Americans’ default assumptions about taxes. The public is never going to grasp all the details in a piece of complex legislation like this one, but Americans start from the assumption that Republicans favor the wealthy and corporations. If the GOP gives them a good reason to get past that assumption, they can come around to support a tax cut, but they need to be convinced. And when you write a bill that has as its centerpiece a gigantic corporate tax cut and gives the wealthy a lot of other breaks, you’re going to have a hard persuasion job ahead of you.
They forgot a key lesson about partisanship. When Barack Obama became president, Mitch McConnell had an important insight about how the public views legislation. If there’s even a little bit of partisan cross-over, lots of Americans assume that the bill must be a good idea, but if it’s completely partisan, they assume it’s, well, completely partisan. Republicans made no effort to win over Democrats to their bill, ensuring that it would always be seen as partisan — which, of course, makes it harder to convince people it’s something other than a giveaway to corporations and the rich, since so many assume that’s just what Republicans do.
They told so many obvious lies. While it’s tempting to conclude that President Trump has taught us that there’s no limit to how many lies you can get away with, that’s not really true. When you have administration figures such as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin promising things like “there will be no absolute tax cut for the upper class” and “I can tell you that virtually everybody in the middle class will get a tax cut, and will get a significant tax cut” or Trump saying “This is going to cost me a fortune, this thing, believe me,” that virtually guarantees lots of stories about how Republicans aren’t telling the truth about their tax plan. This tax bill has been a full-employment initiative for fact-checkers.
In the latest bit of absurdity, the Treasury Department just put out a one-page “analysis” claiming that the tax bill will pay for itself, because abracadabra growth unicorn faerie magic. It’s as if they’re not even trying to convince us they aren’t lying.
They thought the substance wouldn’t matter. In order to pay for the corporate and individual tax cuts, the bill raises taxes on tens of millions of Americans, particularly over time, yet Republicans seem to have believed no one would really notice. Perhaps they assumed public opinion would be something like what it has been on previous tax cuts: Most people wouldn’t jump up and down with glee about them, but they wouldn’t be terribly opposed, either. But that’s what happens when you write a bill that doesn’t hurt anyone, even if it gives most of its benefits to those at the top. When you actually raise taxes on the middle class to help out corporations and the wealthy, as this bill does, it’s a much different story.
Does all that mean the bill is doomed? Not at all! Right now Senate and House conferees are trying to work out a compromise between their bills, and few people doubt that whatever they produce will pass the House. It’s the Senate that will be tricky. Republicans have only two votes to spare, and they lost one, Bob Corker’s, in the first round of voting. Susan Collins said she was voting for it only because she was promised that bills to stabilize the health insurance market would be passed; the question for her vote is at what point she realizes that she got conned. And if Doug Jones were to win tomorrow’s election in Alabama, it’s at least theoretically possible that the bill could go down.
So this is a tricky moment for the GOP. My guess is that Republicans are getting a bit spooked by the polls; Marco Rubio, for one, is loudly complaining that the bill cements their image as the party of the country club (not that he’ll vote against it, of course). So it’s possible that in the conference they’ll try to soften some of the two bills’ harsher provisions in order to say that they’ve made it more friendly to the middle class. But the fundamental shape will remain, and if it passes it won’t be because the public suddenly realized how great it is, but because Republicans decided they’re doing it whether it’s what the public wants or not. And that’s going to be big trouble in 2018.