It’s well worth reading John Judis’s essay that raises doubt about how certain it is that the Republicans will suffer in the midterm elections, or even in 2020, due to the passage of their plutocratic tax bill. Even if you don’t agree with many or most of his points, you should at least consider them. So, why are the Democrats too optimistic about the political windfall they think they get?
Judis begins by asserting that “most American voters don’t object to inequality” unless “there is nothing in it for them.” We can debate exactly how true that is, but Judis points out that however skewed toward corporations and the rich the bill might be, there are some things in it that less affluent people will notice and appreciate, including “the increase in the child credit and standard deduction and lower rates.”
He predicts with some justification, I think, that people don’t really care about the deficit and that banging on about the deficit isn’t necessarily sensible anyway–neither on the merits nor on the politics. And while he predicts that the bill will cause the same kind of irresponsible and unregulated speculation that caused problems in the 1920’s and in the lead-up to the Great Recession, he feels that in the short-term the tax bill will boost consumer spending and corporate investment, giving a boost to the economy.
He acknowledges that the changes in how state and local taxes and mortgage deductions are handled will alienate suburbanites in high-tax states, but he see the fallout from that as limited to the possible loss of a few extra House seats, with little benefit in other parts of the country or in statewide races.
He sees it as an optical problem that the individual cuts sunset in 2025 but the corporate rates do not, but expects this to manifest itself as a political liability in 2025, not in 2018 or 2020.
He concludes by expressing skepticism about polling that shows that the bill is unpopular, as he doesn’t think it is an expression of a substantive opposition to the features of the legislation.
I’m inclined to concede most of these points, but the areas where I disagree could be important.
Given that Donald Trump was just elected president, taking the cynical view of the American electorate might seem like the appropriate default position to adopt, but I don’t think it’s fair or supportable to say that Americans’ simply don’t care about wealth inequality. I think a lot of people care about it, and I believe it can be politically activated with or without demagoguery. During the Great Recession, Americans were being taxed at an historically low rate, but it proved easy to mobilize an impassioned political reaction based on the idea that we’re “Taxed Enough Already.” People don’t need objective reality to line up for complaints about fair treatment to gain traction, and it’s easier still when the underlying complaint happens to be true. Hammering the Republicans for favoring the wealthy and corporations is always at least somewhat effective, but I think it will be especially effective in this cycle.
As to the breadth of the Republicans’ vulnerability in the suburbs, even if it is true that it is going to be limited, if it adds a few House seats to the Democrats’ column it could be the decisive difference between winning control of the House of Representatives and failing to do so. In other words, Judis could be right in his analysis of the impact but wrong in assessing the consequences.
Lastly, I think it’s important that the bill is starting off from a position of deep skepticism and unpopularity. It’s true that people aren’t really reacting to the the substance of the bill. How could they when no one was able to read it and the provisions kept changing to the last minute? Their dissatisfaction is more an expression of their distaste for the process and their distrust of the authors of the bill and of the president. It’s also a reflection of who they currently believe when they read or watch the news, and the condemnations of this bill have been widespread in the mainstream media.
We saw something similar with the Affordable Care Act, where the bill was unpopular and a political liability for the Democrats who had voted for it. This, too, had to do more with the process than the substance, and also with who won the media war and what news sources the people chose to believe. It took several election cycles for Obamacare to become popular, and by that time the Democrats had been decimated all across the country. So, a bill that starts off in a big hole is not likely to climb out of it on short schedule, and I doubt very much that people’s perceptions of this legislation will improve much between now and next November. And, the surest way for the the bill to become more popular is for Trump and the congressional Republicans to become more popular, and that just doesn’t seem like a good bet to make.
If Judis is correct that the immediate impact of the bill will be beneficial to an already booming economy, that will mitigate the damage to the Republicans to some degree. On the other hand, if the economy unexpectedly contracts, there’s no telling how ugly things could get for the GOP.
So, overall, I think Judis is providing a worthwhile set of cautionary statements, but my guess is that the abyss is real and the only question to answer is how deep it will turn out to be.