Tax cuts were supposed to save the Republican Party from President Trump.
Voters would ignore the president’s Twitter outbursts; his Cabinet’s private-jet and redecoration scandals; the Russia investigation; porn star and playmate payoffs; and many other miscellaneous embarrassments.
Voters were supposed to be so very grateful to have a little extra pocket money that they would be willing to overlook all that nonsense and eagerly cast their ballots for the GOP come November.
Unfortunately for Republicans, this deus tax machina never arrived.
Just 27 percent of Americans believe the GOP tax overhaul was a good idea, according to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Even among Republican voters, the tax cuts are not exactly thunderously popular: A little more than half (56 percent) say they were a good idea.
Take the recent Pennsylvania special congressional election. During the first two weeks of February, about two-thirds of the broadcast TV ads supporting the Republican candidate mentioned taxes, according to an analysis by Politico. Over subsequent weeks, taxes were featured in fewer and fewer ads, until they virtually disappeared. In the end, of course, the Republican candidate lost.
Today, Hillary Clinton — a private citizen who is not actually on the ballot — is playing a more prominent role in Republican campaign messaging than is the party’s one and only major legislative achievement.
Republicans and Trump surrogates complain that the tax overhaul isn’t resonating with voters because the media is obsessed with the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and won’t cover tax reform.
“We’re constantly out there making the case as to how the tax plan is helping Americans, how deregulation is helping the economy,” White House director of legislative affairs Marc Short said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” deflecting questions on the Russia inquiry.
The real issue, however, is that even the president isn’t “making the case.”
This month, Trump was supposed to give a talk in West Virginia touting his new tax law. Instead, when he got to the stage, he tossed his script — literally — and proclaimed that his prepared remarks were “a little boring.”
He then rambled about some of his favorite conspiratorial hobbyhorses, including unfounded claims of illegal voting and rapist immigrants. This past week — Tax Week, mind you — Trump likewise tweeted more times about fired FBI director James B. Comey than he did about his tax plan. (Nearly all of those tax-related tweets were retweets, by the way.)
However undisciplined the president’s tax-related messaging is, Republicans were counting on the fact that Americans would at least notice their paychecks swelling as their withholding fell. But that hasn’t happened, either.
In a Gallup survey this month, only 18 percent of respondents said they believe the GOP tax overhaul is lowering their federal income taxes. This despite the fact that 80 percent of households should expect a tax cut this year, according to the Tax Policy Center.
Why the disconnect? Republicans can blame Democratic propaganda, but the reality is that, for most people, the tax cut just wasn’t that noticeable. Spread out over the course of a year, the amount of reduced withholding in any given paycheck is likely to be relatively small. That modest change may also be masked by all the other factors that can cause take-home pay to bounce around, such as changes in wages, hours, insurance premiums, 401(k) selections and so on.
This was all entirely predictable.
Tax cuts passed by Presidents George W. Bush (in 2001 and 2003) and Barack Obama (in 2009, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) were actually more generous to the middle class than Trump’s were. Yet when Americans were surveyed shortly after each of those cuts was implemented, almost no one realized their taxes had gone down then, either.
Today, Americans have also noticed that the new tax law has blown another huge hole in the federal budget and is heavily tilted toward corporations and the rich. That latter factor is likely to weigh more heavily on their views of the tax law than whatever they see in their paychecks. Past surveys have found that Americans are much more bothered by the perception that corporations and the wealthy pay too little than by the feeling they themselves pay too much.
Given all this, it is difficult to fathom why House Republicans and the Trump team are agitating for yet more top-heavy tax cuts ahead of the midterm elections. Unless, of course, it’s not the general public they are trying to impress: Unlike those fickle, fairness-minded voters, you can always count on donors to appreciate a generous fiscal giveaway.