The passage of the GOP tax bill has led to a whole lot of assessing about President Trump’s first year in office. With an actual legislative accomplishment to add to his checklist, many people are now saying that the president has had a great year.
Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein pushes back on that narrative, suggesting that, compared with a garden-variety Republican president whose party controls both houses of Congress, not much has gotten done: “By any historical standard, Trump simply hasn’t had a very productive first year.”
What interests the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts is what all this means for Trump’s second year of governance.
The Washington Examiner’s Byron York has been one of the ablest defenders of the Trump presidency. His latest column leads with a list of Trump’s accomplishments, and that’s the portion that has garnered much attention. But York also offered a cautionary warning about the future:
Perhaps the critical factor in whether Trump can succeed from a policy standpoint next year is whether he is able to attract high-quality people to his administration. …
The first thing a potential high-ranking Trump hire has to consider is the sheer difficulty of working for Donald Trump. Throughout the campaign and in the White House, Trump’s instincts have been remarkably consistent with those of many Republicans (and some independents) across the nation. But working in the atmosphere that he has created, and thrives in, can be a trial. What Trump needs in the second year are people who can endure that trial and focus on the president’s political instincts. …
A significant part of the problem is this: In the supercharged atmosphere of Washington, a prospective Trump aide (and his or her spouse) can face intense professional and social disapprobation from being associated with the president.
This matters greatly. Trump is about to experience an exodus of staff and policy principals exhausted from his first year in office. Ordinarily, this would be a great opportunity for aspiring GOP policy wonks and political hands. What if, however, no one capable wants these jobs because of the toxicity that comes from being associated with this administration? As York concludes, that would make it harder for anything to get accomplished.
The toxicity is real, as the National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar wrote this week. When it comes to Trump, the cake appears to be baked:
Trump’s conduct in office is the defining issue in the country, one so central to next year’s midterms that Democratic candidates don’t even need to mention the president’s name to rile up their supporters. The big battles that have driven activists in the Trump era — the president’s travel ban, outrage over Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the fight to preserve legal status for children of undocumented immigrants — are rooted in the nation’s cultural divisions. …
Trump has permanently squandered any goodwill with his racial demagoguery, ill-informed tweets, and acidic attacks against his critics — all taking place alongside Robert Mueller’s exhaustive investigation examining why Trumpworld has acted so solicitously towards Russia. It’s why his approval rating is stuck in the dumps despite an awfully productive first year in office. And it’s why his political fortunes — along with those of his adopted party — aren’t likely to change much no matter how good things get for Americans.
Many of the policy victories highlighted above — the judicial appointments, deregulation, withdrawal from the Paris accords — are polarizing ones. They will no doubt please conservatives, but not necessarily anyone else. They are not game-changers.
The tax bill could be a game-changer, but it is really, really unpopular right now. Some conservatives suggest that this will change once people realize that they will be getting a tax cut in the short term. The Federalist’s David Harsanyi argues that this tax bill will not play out like Obamacare:
Whatever valid concerns there are about debt or spending (and they are valid,) the idea that tax cuts will have similar long-term consequences on voting as health care is unlikely. It is more likely that tax cuts will do little to change the dynamics of the coming years at all. But it is plausible that, because of the overreaction from the Left, millions of Americans who thought they were going pay more in taxes will find a new child credit and be thankful.
Maybe. But even if one puts Trump’s personal toxicity aside, there are some important counters. First, as FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten points out, this logic has not held with prior tax cuts where everyone benefited:
Before the Reagan tax cuts of the 1980s and the Bush tax cuts of the 2000s, Republicans argued that the middle class would benefit. Yet the percentage of Americans who thought those policies helped the richest Americans the most actually rose over time. With regard to the 1981 Reagan tax cuts, that number went from 59 percent in April 1981 to 69 percent in July 1984. And with regard to the 1986 Reagan tax cuts, it climbed from 48 percent in October 1986 to 65 percent in April 1988. For the Bush tax cuts, the percentage of Americans who thought the rich benefited the most went from 55 percent in April 2001 to 60 percent in October 2004.
Second, the tax cuts will be inextricably linked to some of the knock-on policy effects of 2018. Trump has already bragged that this tax bill “essentially repealed Obamacare.” That was not a popular idea in 2017 and will probably be even more unpopular in 2018. It also means that anything that goes wrong with health care will be tied to the current administration, not the former one.
The new tax law will not just be tied to health care, but to cuts in social safety nets. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan has already said that he wants to target Medicare, Medicaid and welfare spending in 2018. I guarantee you that one way entitlement reform will be justified is to address the deficit … which, as Harsanyi acknowledges, the GOP tax bill worsens. Ryan is not the only Republican to make this point, as Vox’s Tara Golshan points out:
It’s a line of messaging Republicans have escalated in the past weeks. Their tax bill doesn’t have the deficit problem; it’s the other stuff, they say.
“The reason CHIP is having trouble is because we don’t have money anymore,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) famously said on the Senate floor, defending Congress’s delayed renewal of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which has been expired since September due to disagreement on ways to offset the program’s cost.
Republicans are pointing to programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
Americans might like having a bit more money in their pocket after the tax bill is implemented. But if it is linked to cuts in health care, Social Security, and other vital government functions, then it is a political loser. The question is not whether people believe that they have a little more money in their pocket, but whether that money imperils government functions that they have taken for granted.
The current polling data strongly suggests a tough climate for the GOP in 2018. Defenders of the tax bill respond that the new policy will prove to be a political winner. They may be right. But if the tax cuts are linked to cuts in vital government spending, then that dog won’t hunt.
More importantly, Trump is still Trump. His narcissism is boundless. He shows no sign of growing into the presidency. He is really unpopular and so is his signature legislative achievement. Neither of these facts seems likely to change in 2018.