The GOP’s Big Bet

Republican lawmakers think a little extra spending money can reverse the outrage over their tax overhaul.

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise is greeted before the Wednesday vote on tax legislation on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Most of the time when a bill is unpopular, Congress doesn’t pass it. But in an echo of Democratic rhetoric after passing the Affordable Care Act, Republicans hope voters will change their minds about the massive tax overhaul they passed on Wednesday once they see the benefits of the law.

“Whatever the polling data is that’s out there today doesn’t recognize just how powerful this bill is going to be to put more money in the pockets of hard-working families,” said Steve Scalise of Louisiana, majority whip in the House of Representatives. Speaker Paul Ryan was more succinct at a press conference after the vote: “Results are going to make this popular.”

The bill has a long way to go. In one recent poll, conducted by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, 41 percent of Americans said the tax plan was a “bad idea,” compared to just 24 percent who say it’s a “good idea.” In another, conducted by Monmouth University, 47 percent of Americans disapproved of the tax bill while 26 percent approved. Half the public believes their taxes will go up under the plan. In a CNN poll, a whopping 55 percent of Americans said they oppose the Republican legislation.

But Republicans are counting on voters to act as strict materialists: less concerned with the overall impact of the tax bill than they are with what benefits their bank accounts. This is wishful thinking. What we’ve seen all year, instead, is Americans voting to affirm values over material gains. And there’s no reason to think these tax cuts will be an exception.

It is true that most households will see a tax cut under the Republican law, even if they don’t expect it. The average household will see savings of $1,610 in 2018, according to a report from the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. But that number is skewed by extremes. A household earning $1 million or more, for example, gets an average cut of nearly $70,000, or 3.3 percent of their income. By contrast, a more typical household earning $50,000 to $75,000 gets an average tax cut of $870, or 1.6 percent of their income. Moreover, Americans are aware that the benefits are skewed toward the rich. According to that CNN poll, 66 percent of voters believe the bill will benefit the wealthy more than the middle-class.

It’s possible that, with a little extra cash in tow, the public will switch gears on the tax bill, embracing it and the Republican Party by extension. But consider the trajectory of President Trump’s approval over the past year. Trump entered office on the edge of unpopular and quickly tumbled down the slope. At present, just over 37 percent of Americans approve of his administration, a historic low for a president at this point in his tenure.

More striking is that this sustained decline has happened in the context of economic growth. Most Americans are confident in the economy and optimistic about their prospects—attitudes that usually redound to the benefit of the incumbent party. Trump and the GOP have managed to defy that principle. Not only is the president unpopular, but when asked about control of Congress, Americans favor a Democratic majority over a Republican one by double-digit margins, a development that—even at this early stage—signals an anti-GOP wave in 2018. Voters who ordinarily favor Republicans—white suburban dwellers—have turned against the party, contributing to the landslide defeat of Ed Gillespie in Virginia and the surprise upset of Roy Moore in Alabama.

The economy still matters, but voters are also acting on broader, more negative feelings toward President Trump. Yes, they will receive modest benefits under the Republican tax plan, but that may not diminish their animosity toward the president, nor will it erase their (largely accurate) sense that the plan puts them at a disadvantage relative to the wealthiest Americans. Indeed, the belief that they won’t receive a tax cut under the bill may be a proxy for negative attitudes that won’t diminish even as they see slightly larger paychecks.

Voters aren’t wonks. They evaluate policy on the basis of feeling and perception as much as facts and data. And on tax cuts, their sense is that Republicans have passed a substantial giveaway to the wealthiest Americans. Perhaps a taste of the benefits will overcome this belief about the legislation. But once perceptions are set, public opinion is difficult to change. Democrats were right that Americans would eventually embrace the Affordable Care Act. It just took seven years and two wave elections for it to happen.