Democrats Can't Stop the Tax Bill -- But They Can Make Republicans Pay

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Cameron Smith, of Kansas City, Kansas, blocks a hallway with others as they protest the GOP tax bill on December 5, 2017, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Throughout this year, anyone familiar with the Republican Party could have told you that no matter how many ways they might fail, the one thing they will do when they have power is cut taxes, particularly for the wealthy and corporations. If it required their last dying breath, or at least incurring huge political cost, this they would do, above all else.

And now they appear to have gathered the votes, with every last Republican in the Senate likely to vote to approve the conference committee's final version of the bill (though it's possible Mitch McConnell may allow Susan Collins to vote no and save face now that they have a cushion of a vote or two, an old technique called "catch and release").

Democrats cannot stop this bill from passing. But there is something else they can do: Make Republicans pay a price for it.

You have to give the GOP some credit for taking a tax cut—which is supposed to be just about dispensing goodies—and making it one of the least popular pieces of legislation in history, even less popular than past bills that have increased taxes. According to the polls, support is running in the high 20s to low 30s; not only are almost all Democratic voters opposed to it, but even many Republicans think it's a bad idea.

In other words, Democrats won the argument, even if they'll lose the legislative battle. After hearing about it for a while, Americans came to understand that the bill gives the bulk of its benefits to the wealthy and corporations (and it's important to understand that the corporate cuts that form the centerpiece of this bill are also a giveaway to the wealthy, since corporations will use their windfall for things like dividends and stock buybacks that benefit shareholders). To take just one example, in this recent Quinnipiac poll, only 26 percent of Americans supported the bill, 65 percent said the wealthy will benefit most from it, and a mere 16 percent said they think it's going to cut their taxes.

Now the truth is that more people will get a cut than that, even though for most Americans the cuts will be small, and by a decade from now many of us will see our taxes actually increase. But Republicans are hoping that once those cuts start flowing, voters will change their minds and realize what an extraordinary gift the ruling party in Washington has given them.

They shouldn't bet on it, because if you want to get the political benefits of your tax cut, you have to make sure the public actually feels it in an immediate, identifiable way. That's what George W. Bush did with the tax cut he signed in 2001. His administration not only sent every American household a check for $300 to $600, beforehand it send every household a letter telling them the good news that their check was on the way. It was a brilliant way of making even a tiny tax cut real and distracting from the fact that the bill gave most of its benefits to the wealthiest Americans. Eight years later, when the 2009 stimulus bill included a payroll tax cut, President Obama and the Democrats decided not to do the same thing, on the theory that if people just wound up with a few extra dollars in their paychecks instead of getting it in one lump sum, they'd be more likely to spend the money rather than save it, which would help produce the stimulative effect they were looking for.

It's a terrific contrast of Republicans appreciating the PR involved and Democrats sacrificing a political victory for what they believed to be a better policy. And the effects were clear: because of those letters and checks, most everybody knew Bush cut their taxes, but almost nobody realized Obama gave them a tax cut, too. In one CBS/New York Times poll in 2010, only 12 percent of respondents said Obama had cut taxes.

While there's certainly plenty of news coverage of this Republican bill, and there will no doubt be a triumphal Rose Garden ceremony and lots of crowing from Republicans, are voters' minds about what the bill contains going to change? A year from now when the midterm elections take place, are they really going to be thanking the GOP for making their lives so much better? Or are they more likely to believe that they didn't get anything out of this tax bill, but a bunch of fat cats did?

The latter is certainly more likely, but Democrats have to help make it happen. They have to keep reminding the public that when Republicans had complete control of government, the only major thing they did was cut taxes for the rich and corporations. The fact that Republicans are now about to start an assault on the safety net (which they're already justifying by citing the national debt they're about to increase by $1.5 trillion) means the Democrats won't need a lot of creativity to come up with an effective message to pound home. The ads almost write themselves: "Congressman Smith gave a tax cut to corporations and millionaires, and now he wants to slash Medicare and Medicaid!" As far as attacks go, it's a pretty potent one, more so because it's true.

There's another reason Democrats should keep talking about taxes. They need to start figuring out exactly what they want to do if and when they take back control of Congress and the White House, which could well happen three years from now. Democrats are usually not as concerned with tinkering with the tax code as Republicans are, simply because unlike Republicans they don't think tax changes make a huge impact on the performance of the economy. But voters are going to be asking: OK, if this tax cut was terrible, what would you do differently?

They need to figure out the answer, not only so they have a snappy response to the question but so they have something resembling a plan in place. They should go through a period of working through ideas, debating them internally, and moving toward something resembling a consensus. Then when they get the chance, they'll be able to move decisively on legislation, with all of their party on board.

That's what Republicans failed to do in advance of 2016, which is why all their legislative efforts have been so slapdash. But as the party that cares about policy, Democrats should be able to do it better. And this tax bill is probably going to help them get the chance.

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