Mitch McConnell thinks the tax bill passed by Congress will put a strong wind into his party’s sails. “If we can’t sell this to the American people, we ought to go into another line of work,” the Senate majority leader said Wednesday. Afterward, I’m guessing, he was swamped with messages from congressional Republicans asking: “Will you serve as a reference when I apply for a job in my next line of work?”
Politicians are often accused of pandering to popular sentiment, but that charge cannot be laid on the members who voted for this bill. Most of their constituents would rather drink vinegar. A recent CNN poll found that 55 percent of Americans oppose the measure, with 33 percent in favor. When asked about the Republicans’ claim that it will help them in the 2018 elections, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi replied, “Let. Them. Think. That.”
The most visible cheerleader for the bill will be President Donald Trump, who has a lower approval rating at this stage of his first term than any president since the invention of polling. McConnell would go broke trying to sell beer on a troop ship. House Speaker Paul Ryan? He’s reported to be planning to duck accountability by retiring.
Not that Democrats should be cocky. Any party that can lose an election to Trump could make the Tournament of Roses parade into a funeral march. If Trump and McConnell are a boon to the opposition, the GOP can be grateful for Pelosi and her Senate counterpart, Chuck Schumer, whose news conferences are used to extract confessions at Gitmo.
Republicans believe the surest way to buy votes is the old-fashioned way: with money. “When people see their paychecks getting bigger in February because withholding tables have adjusted to reflect their tax cuts,” Ryan exulted, “that’s going to change its popularity.”
That prediction overlooks some realities. One is that the increase in take-home pay won’t be very big. Ryan rolled out a sign with “$1,182” on it, signifying the amount he says a typical family of four earning $59,000 will save each year. But that’s less than $100 a month, which is not enough to buy a large quantity of goodwill.
Another is that the pleasure from such windfalls is brief. Studies have found that lottery winners are no happier a year later than they were before they hit the jackpot. The slightly larger paychecks will soon be taken for granted.
The problem with tax changes is much like what President Barack Obama discovered with the Affordable Care Act. When Congress starts fiddling with the tax code or health insurance, Americans tend to assume they are about to get shafted. After the changes take effect, they persist in this assumption.
That’s why the ACA was generally unpopular right up to the time when Republicans looked as though they would repeal it. It’s also why when Obama signed a tax cut that boosted take-home pay in 2009, a survey the following year by The New York Times found that “half of those polled said they thought that their taxes had stayed the same, a third thought that their taxes had gone up, and about a tenth said they did not know.”
Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, professes to be unworried about the public mood. “The Reagan 1981 tax cuts did not enjoy broad support when they were first passed into law,” he advised The Washington Post in a fit of condescension. “It took time for people to see the change was good for them.”
In fact, 51 percent of Americans favored Reagan’s tax cuts when he signed them into law. Even so, the voters didn’t reward him. In the 1982 House elections, the GOP lost 27 seats. A loss of 27 seats next year would cost Republicans their House majority.
At a time when the economy is humming, unemployment and inflation are low and the stock market is setting records, the prudent thing to do with taxes is nothing. This plan disturbs the contentment Americans were starting to feel. Republicans had to pass a tax cut only because if they don’t cut taxes, there is no obvious reason for Republicans to exist or their donors to donate.
But that doesn’t mean the party will profit politically. Voters, as a rule, have short memories, grouchy dispositions and endless demands. Republicans think they did the public a big favor. Come November, they should expect a lot of ingratitude.
Chapman writes for the Chicago Tribune as well as being syndicated columnist.