Republicans are pushing full steam ahead on their tax cut plan, despite polling that shows more Americans oppose rather than support the sweeping proposal to reduce corporate rates and some individual tax bills.
In pushing so hard, Republicans are betting they can sell this plan to the skeptical public once the legislation is signed into law by President Trump and workers see a boost in take-home pay. They are not dismissive of the polling, but they believe they can make the legislation popular enough next year to save their congressional majorities in the midterm elections.
“I fundamentally believe when we do this — make good on our word, make good on our promise, make people’s lives better — we’re going to be just fine politically,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters the week before the House passed its tax-cut plan Nov. 16.
One can almost hear the echo of a previous House speaker pushing legislation in the early days of a new administration, as the proposal and the president started to grow unpopular.
“We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it,” Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), then the House speaker and now minority leader, said before final passage of the Affordable Care Act.
Pelosi’s opponents accused Democrats of approving a major law without ever reading it, taking her words out of context. What Pelosi was trying to say was quite similar to what Ryan is now saying: Once the law is passed and the public sees its impact, voters will like its benefits.
Instead, opponents branded the ACA as “Obamacare,” and it remained unpopular for most of Barack Obama’s presidency. In December 2009, after the House approved its version and the Senate was gearing up for a Christmas Eve vote, just 44 percent of voters supported the health proposal, and 51 percent opposed it, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.
The GOP tax proposal is slightly less popular at almost the same stage of the process: Just 33 percent of adults support Trump’s tax plan while 50 percent oppose it, according to this month’s Post-ABC News poll.
Support for the ACA barely moved ahead of the 2010 elections, and Democrats lost the House majority in a 63-seat blowout.
In 2016, Obama’s last year in office, the public began to appreciate the health law. By August of this year, after Republicans failed in their bid to repeal the law, 52 percent of voters supported the ACA and 39 percent opposed it, according to a Kaiser Health Tracking Poll.
Republicans can take some solace in that groundswell of ACA support, showing how the public can warm up to previously unpopular laws. The question for Republicans is whether, if they pass their tax plan, they can convince the public that it was a good thing to do in time for next year’s elections.
Democrats are driving home that the relief for corporate tax rates, from 35 percent down to 20 percent, is permanent, while the lower rates for individuals expire after 10 years. “Republicans are openly looting the hard-earned income of the American middle class to hand tax breaks to the wealthiest 1 percent and corporations,” Pelosi said.
To counter that charge, Republicans have been circulating data, polling and focus group feedback to win back the public on a traditional GOP issue. The key moves are talking about workers seeing more money in their paychecks and not focusing on large macroeconomic theory.
“As a stand-alone, tax reform is a moderate priority, but in its ability to impact the economy, jobs and wages, it is a huge priority,” David Winston and Myra Miller, co-founders of the Winston Group, a Republican polling firm, wrote in a July memo.
Several of these Winston Group memos, sent to congressional leaders and K Street allies, were provided to The Washington Post by recipients who have been sharing the firm’s work to lawmakers unsteady in their support to shore up their vote and help them explain their decision to constituents.
Republicans also believe taxes and the economy are a better issue set. In the Winston memo, voters chose Republicans by eight percentage points over Democrats to handle the economy and by four points on taxes, while Democrats held a margin of 12 percent on health care.
Also, there is a political imperative to deliver results, given how frustrated conservatives are with the lack of output so far. Most House Republicans represent less affluent, somewhat rural districts where the vast majority of workers do not itemize their taxes. That means lower rates would benefit constituents in deep-red districts because the elimination of other deductions will not hit them.
For Republicans fearing a primary challenge, this tax plan is something to sell to conservative voters. “They need to put a product on the table,” said former congressman Thomas M. Davis III, who served as the House Republican campaign chief from 1999 to 2003.
But the proposed elimination or reduction of some deductions, particularly state and local taxes, hurts in the suburbs. Several dozen of the most targeted Republicans represent wealthy suburban districts where quite a few of those constituents will see a net tax hike.
“The people that itemize are the swing voters,” Davis said.
Some Republicans are urging lawmakers to focus on other proposals inside the massive legislation. “In the immediate term, it will deliver tangible relief — in doubling the standard deduction, lowering rates and increasing the child tax credit — to middle-class families,” said Michael Steel, a former House GOP leadership aide working with an outside coalition supporting the proposal.
Yet during the 2009-2010 push for the ACA, when Steel worked for John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), then the minority leader, Republicans successfully defined the proposal for many voters as a government takeover of the health industry. Other popular provisions — allowing children to stay on a parent’s plan until age 26, ensuring coverage for preexisting conditions — could not overcome the general disdain toward the ACA.
Eight years later, Pelosi and Democrats are working overtime to do to the tax plan what Republicans did to the ACA.
Ryan is adamant that, once the bill is signed into law, voters will like what they see.
“This is not unpopular. We’re actually letting people keep more of their own money,” Ryan told reporters, citing the benefits to come. “That's not an unpopular thing to do.”