When historians write the political obituary for the Republican Party, they will surely include the $1.5 trillion tax bill, which was railroaded through Congress this week, as a sign of everything anathema to what conservatives once stood for.
With the bill’s passage, as Frank Bruni brilliantly noted in a Times column, the Democrats have become the party that stands for fiscal austerity, family values, safety nets, fairness, decency, modesty, and the rule of law — as opposed to the greed, corruption, plunder, racism and sexism the Republicans are now known for. The GOP’s pillars are falling. They’re up for grabs, or so it would seem.
But between now and the time the GOP is ousted, what role will political landmarks, such as its only legislative victory under President Trump, a tax-based upward transfer of wealth, play in the governing and electoral arena heading into 2018’s midterms and 2020’s presidential election? Will it become a rallying cry for Democrats to regain federal power in 2018, just as the passage of Obamacare in 2010 fueled the Tea Party’s rise and GOP takeover of the House that continues today? Or is the tax law another impression, a large dot in a growing and increasingly clear picture of life in America under Trump and a red-run Congress.
Academic pollsters say it’s too early to tell.
“Unfortunately, facts never seem to fit all of the same circumstances,” said Peter Brown, Quinnipiac University Poll assistant director, when asked how pivotal the tax bill is likely to be in 2018’s midterm elections, based on past polls and history he’s seen. “It will be years until we find out.”
“Here’s the question: does this change voters' opinion of Trump to any degree?” he said. “That’s obviously the underlying political question, depending on what else happens in the rest of his term.”
Other analysts are more forthright. FiveThirtyEight.com’s Harry Enten has repeatedly noted it is clear the political pendulum has been swinging to the left and gaining momentum during 2017, citing elections, polls and historic data. Following the tax plan votes, Enten tweeted, “Democrats hit an all time high in our generic congressional ballot tracker of 49.3%. Hold a 12-point lead over the GOP.”
Other December polls put generic blue candidates further ahead, such as CNN (+18 percent), Quinnipiac (+15 percent), Monmouth (+15 percent). “Tsunami alert,” tweeted Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman, citing those surveys Wednesday. “Only problem for Dems; election still 10+ months away.”
While Trump and Republicans celebrated at the White House, Enten poked holes in their tax cut rhetoric. He noted that every boast about the bill — the GOP will be rewarded for passing something unpopular; voters will like it once they understand it; it will rally the base — was not supported by many national surveys. Essentially, healthcare — not taxes — is what worries most voters, and the law’s anti-Obamacare and anti-Medicare elements will increase out-of-pocket healthcare costs as early as next year.
Meanwhile, history-minded writers were noting that the GOP’s pro-tax rhetoric also was eerily close to what President Obama and then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said after pushing the Affordable Care Act through Congress in March 201 — another party-line juggernaut. As Sahil Kapur wrote for Bloomberg:
“Shortly before passing a far-reaching but unpopular bill on a party line vote, the Speaker of the House assured critics that people would like it once they felt its benefits. That was 2010, and it didn’t work out for Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat in charge of the House at the time, or for the Obamacare health-care bill. It remained unpopular, even after health coverage was extended to millions of people. Democrats lost the House that November and the Senate four years later.”
Now, Kapur notes, Pelosi and the Dems are trying to “turn the tables.” Indeed, Democrats, led by DNC Chair Tom Perez, swiftly sent out fundraising emails. “This legislation makes it very clear who Republicans are fighting for. Now it’s up to us to fight back.”
But on the question of whether the tax bill will drive the dynamics of 2018 like Obamacare did in 2010, an insightful take came from Walter Shapiro, who has covered politics for four decades and now is a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School.
Many history-minded writers have said the obvious: there’s an old pattern of the president’s party losing seats in midterm elections. That’s because the day-to-day realities of what they do in office never lives up to the campaign trail’s promises. In 2014, Shapiro wrote a piece saying that wave elections in midterm years were becoming the new normal. The dynamics around how the GOP trashed Obamacare seem poised to recur in 2018 — but to their detriment. (As he talks about Obamacare, swap in the tax law).
“Some of the political problems with Obamacare flow from Republican demonology. But voters have also not forgotten the heavy-handed way that the Democrats got it through Congress in 2010,” he wrote in 2014. (He also noted how Obamacare’s rollout was an administrative disaster — which is likely to occur with a tax bill that was passed 10 days before it is to take effect.)
“The lesson here for future presidents is simple: Despite temptation, never pass controversial legislation on party-line votes,” Shapiro said, warning against exactly what the GOP just did.
“The practical benefits of Obamacare have to be weighed against the reality that this single piece of legislation (and the way that it was passed) cost the president the ability to do anything in Congress from the summer of 2010 until the end of his presidency,” he continued. “No other piece of legislation in America history has ever caused a sitting president to endure two separate off-year political disasters like [election results in] 2010 and 2014.”
No other single piece of legislation — until, perhaps, the GOP's tax bill.
The Quinnipiac Poll’s Brown warned against drawing parallels when each era’s specifics vary. After the two tax cuts during the Ronald Reagan presidency, the nation elected Republican George H. W. Bush, he said, as a counterpoint suggesting tax cuts sometimes are popular. But back then, in the 1980s, both parties were talking and making compromises. No more.
Today’s tax bill is the latest big injury inflicted by the GOP on a party line. As Bloomberg’s Kapur tweeted after the vote, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told him it wasn’t even his biggest achievement: hijacking the federal courts was.
“Didn’t make it into the piece, but @SenMajLdr told me the tax bill is only his second-greatest achievement. ‘For me personally, it would be [confirming Supreme Court Justice] Neil Gorsuch and the changes we’re making [creating right-wing control] in the circuit courts,’ McConnell said,” he tweeted.
Whether the tax bill will do for Democrats in 2018 what Obamacare did for Republicans in 2010 is an open question. But Americans are seeing what a GOP monopoly on federal power is bringing, and in poll after poll this month, growing numbers are rejecting it and supporting generic Democrats by double digits.