This article appears in the Summer 2018 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
As they prepare to face the voters and defend their congressional majorities, Republicans face serious challenges. Positioned as the in-party in an off-year election, they can anticipate enhanced Democratic turnout that creates an unfavorable battlefield. An unpopular president, weak fundraising, and a wave of incumbent retirements further stack the deck against the GOP.
Republicans, however, believe they have an ace in the hole that will preserve their majorities: the tax law they passed in December 2017. Republicans tout the tax law as both their most important policy accomplishment and the best political weapon they have. Matt Gorman, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, says, “It’s very clear that tax reform was going to be the biggest legislative crown jewel of this Congress. That is a massive centerpiece of our campaign.” In the eyes of veteran Republican pollster David Winston, the Tax Act “defines what this Congress is about.”
However, a wealth of public opinion data suggests Republicans actually have a rather weak hand to play on the tax front. In a typical result, Gallup’s latest poll (April 11) reports that just 39 percent approve of the law while 52 percent disapprove. As of publication, the Real Clear Politics national average of public polls on the issue registers 37 percent approval and 43 percent disapproval, a net negative rating of 6 points. Still worse for Republicans, support for the legislation appears to have eroded after some gains earlier in the year (opinion was evenly split in February, when the tax cuts first impacted paychecks).
Moreover, a national poll on the Tax Act conducted by my firm reveals that no electoral advantage is conferred on the bill’s congressional supporters. On the contrary,just 28 percent of respondents say they would be more likely to vote for their member of Congress if they learned that they had voted for the law, while 37 percent say less likely (a 9-point net negative). Significantly, the tax issue is more motivating to Democratic voters (68 percent less likely) than to Republicans (57 percent more likely). In the competitive battleground House districts, a yes vote on the tax law yields a 10-point net negative response from voters (30 percent more likely, 40 percent less likely).
This weak support reflects a strong belief by the public that the law’s tax cuts go mainly to the wealthy and big corporations, rather than to the middle class. In our poll, voters expect by a 43-point margin that the law will benefit the wealthy (60 percent) more than the middle class (17 percent) and by an even larger 46-point margin that the law’s corporate tax cuts will benefit corporate executives and shareholders (58 percent) more than employees (12 percent).
In what must be deeply disappointing news for Republican strategists, far fewer Americans believe they personally received a tax cut from this legislation than actually received one. Just 18 percent told Gallup in April that their federal taxes had declined, and a Morning Consult/Politico poll the same month reported that 22 percent noticed an increase in their paycheck in recent weeks. While these numbers could potentially change after people do their 2018 tax returns (not likely), that will be far too late to help this year’s GOP candidates.
Conservatives believe the problem here is not the product, but rather an insufficient sales effort. Bloomberg reports, for example, that groups backed by the Koch brothers are funding television ads and paying canvassers to knock on doors “to convince voters of the benefits of the GOP’s central achievement.” We should be skeptical, even if Republican donors are not, that TV ads and earnest canvassers can sell this law after all the favorable press coverage generated at passage—plus the reality of tax cuts arriving in tens of millions of paychecks—could not.
Indeed, the fact that Republicans need to sell the law at all signals the depth of their problem. When you have a winning issue, you spend your time educating voters that your opponents voted against it, and characterizing their motives in the most noxious terms possible. The merits of the measure can simply be asserted without explanation—indeed, that’s essentially the definition of a winning political issue. There is little time remaining for Republicans to make the Tax Act such an issue, and little reason to think they can succeed.
BUT WHILE REPUBLICANS seem unable to gain political traction with the tax issue this year, perhaps Democrats can. Our opinion research suggests some real potential for Democrats to deploy the tax vote as a substantial negative issue in campaigns, and make it an actual liability for Republicans. This would be important for this year’s elections, where Republicans still enjoy important advantages that may permit them to hold one or both chambers: an extremely favorable Senate map, gerrymandered House districts, and relatively solid job growth. Republican weakness creates an opportunity, but hardly ensures Democratic success.
Longer term, transforming a massive tax cut into a political liability in 2018 could change the politics of taxes for a generation. Fundamental assumptions that everyone “knows” to be true about tax cuts—they are always popular, the consequences for spending are too distant to matter, voters don’t care about cuts for the wealthy as long as they get their own—would be overturned. The calculus regarding what is politically possible regarding tax policy would be transformed. There is no guarantee this effort would succeed, but if it did, the payoff for progressives would be enormous.
Converting the tax vote into an electoral negative is a task distinct from simply making the strongest possible policy case against the law. It requires telling a larger story about the consequences of the law for our country and the motives of the public officials who voted for it, and framing a choice for voters about the future. I think an aggressive campaign by Democrats to go on offense on taxes—focused on the themes of cuts, corruption, and choices—has the potential to achieve these goals.
Cuts. The first line of attack against Republicans should focus on the large cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security that their Tax Act will ultimately cause. The tax cuts’ long-term impact on these vital spending programs is less intuitive to voters than its skew toward the wealthy and corporations, but may be even more important politically. In our poll, voters find the claim that the tax law will increase the budget deficit, which will result in large cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, to be very plausible—fully 70 percent believe it is definitely or probably true. They also rank it as their top concern about the law.
The consequences of the Tax Act for core public services is concern number one for women (67 percent), white voters (62 percent), voters over age 50 (65 percent), and non-college white women (74 percent). Making the connection to services gives many voters a more personal stake in this issue, and encourages them to think about the law’s long-term impact on the nation, rather than just the short-term gratification that tax cuts may provide.
It also works in the electoral context. When we test voter reaction to potential campaign attacks on a candidate’s vote for the Tax Act, fully 62 percent express strong concern that “Republicans’ tax breaks cost $1.5 trillion, and now they want to cut Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and education in order to pay for their tax breaks for big corporations and the richest 1%.” This is one of the three highest-rated criticisms out of 18 tested.
In our research, the impact of the tax law on projected deficits per se does not emerge as a top-tier public concern. However, mentioning that the tax cuts increase the budget deficit proves a critical element for making a message about cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security maximally effective. While 70 percent believe it is true that the law “will increase the budget deficit, which will result in large cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security,” belief drops to just 60 percent if we remove the first five words referring to the deficit (making it one of the less credible criticisms tested). For many voters, the ultimate damage that tax cuts do to vital services is not obvious unless we connect the dots by highlighting the fiscal impact.
A demonstrator holds a sign at a rally in opposition to the Republican tax bill held in Lower Manhattan
Citing the economic damage that cutting Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and education would entail can also serve as an effective rebuttal to Republicans’ claim that the Tax Act is helping to grow the economy. By a solid 14-point margin (57 percent to 43 percent), voters find the second claim in this exchange more convincing:
Tax reform is growing the economy by putting more money in people’s pockets and creating a level playing field for American business; OR
The law will weaken our economy by increasing the national debt, which will force deep cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and education.
Here again, including the connecting element of “increasing the national debt” amplifies the power of our message. When we pose this same choice to survey respondents without referencing the national debt, the 15-point advantage vanishes and we earn only a draw.
While we should not allow Republican claims about the economic benefits of their Tax Act to go unanswered, it would be a mistake to allow Republicans to frame this as a debate about jobs. While their jobs message is not especially powerful, it is still relatively favorable terrain from Republicans’ perspective. Democrats shouldnever concede that the tax bill was a genuine (if flawed) attempt to create jobs. This was not a “jobs bill,” but rather a massive tax cut for the wealthy and large corporations, which Republicans will pay for by cutting health care, Social Security, and education. Every minute we spend debating the bill’s economic impact is time not spent delivering that message. We want voters to consider the question “Is it right to cut Medicare and Social Security in order to give tax cuts to the rich and large corporations?” rather than “How many jobs did the tax cuts really create?”
Donald Trump likes to talk about his “big, beautiful tax cut.” By this November, Democrats want to make sure that the first “cuts” voters associate with Republicans are the Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security cuts that will constitute the true legacy of their tax bill.
Corruption. Our research suggests the systemic Republican corruption underlying the design and passage of the tax bill can be a second compelling campaign theme. When voters consider specific criticisms of Republicans who supported the tax bill, they respond particularly strongly to evidence that the bill was designed to benefit special interests—especially interests that help fund their own campaigns, or themselves. Four corruption-related attacks emerge as particularly effective at raising concerns about Republicans:
Dozens of Republican politicians voted for a special tax loophole that will cut their own taxes by an average of more than $50,000 per year. (63 percent expressed extremely serious concern.)
Republicans gave pharmaceutical and health insurance companies billions in new tax breaks, but now those companies are raising drug prices and our insurance premiums. (62 percent)
Republicans gave a tax cut of more than $1 billion a year to the billionaire Koch brothers, who promised to spend $400 million to re-elect Republicans who voted for the law. This was a political payoff. (57 percent)
Republicans opened up a huge new loophole that gives billions to wealthy business owners and real-estate developers like Donald Trump who can game the system—but working people don’t qualify. (56 percent)
Rising health-care costs is at the forefront of voters’ economic concerns today, which likely explains their extremely negative reaction to new tax breaks for pharmaceutical companies and health insurance companies.
The common denominator here is that Republican members of Congress are not looking out for the interests of their constituents, but instead are looking out only for themselves. The personal gain may show up on their tax return or in their campaign coffers, but either way, voters get the message: These officials cannot be trusted to look out for the public interest. Even before hearing these messages, 69 percent of voters believe the law gave big tax cuts to special interests and Republican campaign donors, so we know this critique enjoys inherent credibility.
Republicans’ corrupt intent and dishonesty are also powerfully revealed when voters hear that the Tax Act provides permanent tax cuts to large corporations, while the tax cuts for working families are only temporary. This basic fact about the legislation communicates three ideas in a few efficient words: 1) Voters’ own tax cuts will expire in a few years, 2) Republicans in Congress care more about helping corporations and CEOs than working families, and 3) advocates of the bill have been dishonest and deceptive in selling it to the public (by hiding the temporary status of tax cuts for average people). Almost three in four voters (73 percent) believe this claim is true (making it the single-most credible criticism tested in our poll), and it ranks as voters’ top concern about the tax law (tied with cuts to Medicare and Social Security). It is the top concern for many key voter groups not predisposed to oppose the bill, including political independents (60 percent), men (62 percent), ambivalent Trump voters (69 percent), and non-college white men (67 percent).
The temporary/permanent disparity effectively rebuts the Republicans’ strongest message, that the law provides tax relief averaging $2,000 to families. By a solid 16-point margin (58 percent to 42 percent), voters say Tax Act opponents make the more convincing case in this exchange:
Our tax reform is providing much-needed tax relief to middle-class families, an average of $2,000 per family; OR
The law gave large permanent tax cuts to corporations, but the middle-class tax cuts are only temporary.
This element also helps to raise doubts about the honesty of GOP candidates, who routinely brag about the tax cuts delivered to average Americans without mentioning that only the corporate tax cuts are guaranteed to survive. Significantly, the phrase voters select at the end of our survey as the best description of the Tax Act is “dishonest and deceptive.”
Why is this corruption theme so electorally powerful? It puts the candidate we are trying to defeat at the center of the story. Progressive narratives on taxes often center on the wealthy and corporations, who manipulate the legislative process for their own benefit. This is understandable, insofar as economic elites benefit the most from the policy. But by casting corporations and billionaires as the supervillains of our tale, and treating elected officials as mere instruments of entrenched economic power, we risk letting congressional Republicans off the hook. Let’s remember that members of Congress—unlike corporations and billionaires—promised to represent the interests of average people. Their constituents hold them to a higher standard, and we should encourage voters to hold them accountable.
Don’t be surprised if Democratic campaign messages in this election cycle boil down to “It’s the corruption, stupid,” with the tax cuts serving as people’s exhibit A.
Representative Lloyd Doggett speaks during a rally led by congressional Democrats against President Trump's proposed tax plan outside the U.S. Capitol
Choices. So far, I have focused on deploying two powerful attacks against Republican candidates. And to some extent, the 2018 election will inevitably serve as a referendum on unified Republican control of Washington (not a bad frame for Democrats). However, elections are always a choice about the future, and we need to frame it in the most favorable terms we can. Our research indicates that by promising to make corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, in order to fund essential domestic priorities, Democrats can draw a sharp contrast with Republicans who voted for the Tax Act, and provide voters with a clear choice on our terms.
When voters face a choice between a Republican candidate who strongly supports the Tax Act and a Democrat who favors repealing it and making the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share, they prefer the Democrat by a commanding 16-point margin (50 percent to 34 percent). This Democrat is strongly favored by independents (by 25 points), moderates (40 points), and swing voters (17 points).
Voters say they will reward candidates who advocate an alternative, progressive tax reform agenda. Large majorities say they are more likely to support a candidate who advocates the progressive tax priorities below, while less than 20 percent are less likely to vote for these candidates. Voters are far more likely to support candidates who embrace these positions:
Make sure wealthy investors are taxed at a rate at least as high as workers pay on their wages. (69 percent more likely)
End tax breaks for corporations that outsource jobs or shift profits offshore. (68 percent)
Close the loophole that benefits wealthy business owners like Trump and use the revenue for infrastructure. (64 percent)
Repeal the tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, but keep the tax cuts for the middle class. (58 percent)
Support for these positions is true even in deep red Senate battleground states. While progressive revenue measures enjoy strong support, linking the revenue to important public purposes can further increase the popularity of this approach. When Democrats commit to making the rich and corporations pay their fair share so that we can make the investments that our nation needs, voters embrace their message over that of Republican defenders of the law by an overwhelming 20-point margin. This margin is even larger among political independents (26 points) and 2018 swing voters (28 points).
Republicans say: Our tax reform law means that Americans will have a simpler, fairer tax code that lets them keep more of their hard-earned money. A typical family of four saves $2,059 a year. The law doubles the standard tax deduction and the child tax credit, and simplifies your taxes. This reform lets job creators and workers compete and win, which will create hundreds of thousands of new American jobs. Republicans kept their promise, and now middle-class families are seeing higher wages and bigger paychecks. (40 percent agree.)
Democrats say: We will pay a price for these huge tax breaks to corporations and wealthy campaign donors. Republicans are already proposing cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and education. Instead, we should make sure the rich and corporations pay their fair share of taxes, so we can protect these priorities. And we should invest in our communities to have better schools, fix roads, bridges, and transit systems, make health care more affordable, and provide a secure retirement with dignity. (60 percent agree.)
Taking into account all of this polling data, the bottom line seems clear: Republican candidates who supported the 2017 Tax Act are very vulnerable to attack on tax issues. What’s more, vigorous engagement on the tax issue strengthens Democrats’ standing with voters. At the beginning of our survey—before any debate or messages—28 percent said they would be more likely to vote for a member of Congress who had voted for the law and 37 percent said less likely (a net negative of 9 points).Significantly, after voters are exposed to extensive debate and messages from both sides, a “yes” vote becomes an even greater liability. After the debate, just 29 percent say they are more likely to support and 45 percent say less likely (a 16-point net negative). The issue does even more post-debate damage in competitive House battleground districts (a 22-point net negative).
At the end of our survey, swing voters told us the tax law is a “time bomb for the middle class.” What they mean is that while immediate tax cuts are all well and good in the short term, this is far outweighed by the harm this law will inflict in the medium and long term. If we fail to make needed investments in education, health care, and infrastructure, the middle class will eventually pay the price. If Republicans succeed in paying for this by cutting Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, middle-class families will be hurt.
But we may not have to wait a generation to see the impact of this “time bomb.” Voters seem ready to punish elected officials who put the nation’s long-term interests at risk in order to benefit their own careers and political interests. If Democrats play their cards right, this bomb may blow up the Republican majorities in 2018.