Congress could upset the conventional wisdom that President Trump and Republican majorities on Capitol Hill have little to show for their first year governing together by passing the tax cut bill Tuesday.
Republicans are especially hopeful their biggest legislative victory yet will refocus the public’s attention on a series of achievements they believe have gotten short shrift as the news cycle has lurched from one controversy to another throughout year one of the Trump presidency.
“Passing tax reform should be seen as a once-in-a-generation accomplishment that will seriously undermine critics who were about to charge that Trump and Republicans in Congress would get nothing done,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist. “It should also be noted how many regulations and executive orders Trump has reversed from eight years of the Obama administration.”
“The president is accumulating a powerful list of accomplishments,” said Mark Serrano, a Republican strategist advising Trump’s re-election campaign.
Editorial: Trump is on a roll
A narrow Senate majority, divisions between conservatives and centrists in the House, and Trump’s unconventional leadership style — which has occasionally included the president taking shots at lawmakers in his own party from Twitter — all combined to slow the pace of the Republican legislative agenda in 2017 despite GOP control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue for the first time in over a decade.
The tax bill’s enactment would dramatically add to the list of first-year success stories for Trump and Republicans in Congress. The measure would cut taxes by $1.5 trillion while repealing the Obamacare individual mandate and opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. That would follow rolling back regulations, keeping the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court seat in conservative hands by confirming Neil Gorsuch, getting more appellate judges confirmed in his first year than any president in history, and the U.S. and its allies making strides against the Islamic State.
Getting the tax bill to the president’s desk as part of a year-end scramble would fulfill what one GOP operative described as the need to “put points on the board.” A number of Republican lawmakers think the tax cut is the best way to increase economic growth, create jobs, boost wages, and actually prove to most voters that the party would actually lower their tax bills.
But many voters don’t see a tax cut for themselves as a foregone conclusion, according to recent polling on the Republican plan. A Quinnipiac poll found respondents believed the measure would raise their taxes instead of cut them by a more than 2-1 margin. A survey by Monmouth University was even worse, with 50 percent saying their taxes would go up under the plan, while only 14 percent said they would go down.
Only 5 percent of taxpayers are expected to see their taxes rise in the first year under the legislation, according to one nonpartisan estimate, a number that only rises dramatically if temporary tax cuts expire in ten years. Most of former President George W. Bush’s tax cuts were extended, even after his party lost control of the White House and Congress.
“A lot of our own people don’t trust us,” said a Republican congressional aide. Trump and company hope seeing, in the form of lower taxes, is believing. “We don’t have to get everything done,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Matt Gorman told the Washington Examiner earlier this year, “but we have to get something done.”
Ronald Reagan survived an assassination attempt before Congress cleared a path for his tax cuts in 1981, although he was able to pass more sweeping tax reform in 1986. In both cases, Democrats controlled the House though not the Senate. Bill Clinton was able to get his tax increase passed in 1993, by one vote in each chamber (Al Gore, then the vice president, had to break a tie in the Senate), with large Democratic majorities. Lyndon Johnson, a former Senate majority leader, secured the passage of many Democratic items that had bottled up for over a year, after his predecessor John F. Kennedy was murdered.
Even if you justifiably doubt Trump’s claims to have done more than any president in recent history, his loyalists believe even the promise of tax cuts, combined with deregulation, has already sparked a rise in small business confidence, a bounce in the stock market and economic growth in excess of 3 percent after long-term stagnation.
“While the media threw sand in the eyes of the American people, the president has actually been working really hard to fulfill his promises,” said Serrano. “New jobs and economic growth will solve a lot of disputes in the Republican Party.”
Trump has tried to do as much as possible through his control of the executive branch, especially after congressional efforts to even just partially repeal and replace Obamacare faltered. But the confirmation of Gorsuch and a dozen appellate judges was the result of cooperation between the White House and Senate Republicans, especially Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Despite public feuding between Trump and McConnell over the summer, the Kentucky Republican was key to breaking a potential Democratic filibuster that could have derailed Gorsuch’s nomination by eliminating the 60-vote threshold to end debate on the nominee — after blocking Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland for a year.
“I especially want to express our gratitude to Sen. Mitch McConnell for all that he did to make this achievement possible,” Trump said in a ceremony after Gorsuch’s confirmation. “So, thank you, Mitch.” The president then thanked the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I’d also like to give my appreciation to Chairman [Chuck] Grassley [of Iowa] for conducting such a fair and professional confirmation,” he added.
Democrats believe that progress enacting the Republican agenda won’t help the president’s party because they argue the substance of those policies don’t help the people who swung the election to Trump. In the case of the tax bill, some of the increases will be borne by affluent, college-educated suburbanites whose affinity for the GOP has already waned under Trump.
“Much better to run against the substance of the tax bill,” said Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist. “The national polls indicate the tax bill is one of the all-time unpopular pieces of legislation to come out of Congress. The bill is a great way for Democrats to peel away the white, working-class voters in the industrial Midwest who elected Trump in the first place.”
The Democratic operative then added, “If passage of the tax bill is a prelude to cuts in Social Security and Medicare, Republicans will face an electoral disaster of the biblical proportions in 2018. Polls also indicate that the public didn't view tax reform as a priority. So it will be hard for the GOP to argue that it was important to do it.”
Some populist supporters of the president also believe Trump deferred too much to McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., in passing a conventional Republican agenda rather on delivering on more uniquely “Trumpist” policies like building the wall, restructuring trade deals, and creating blue-collar jobs.
But many of Trump’s strongest backers are frustrated with the media portrayal of the president, contending he does not get enough credit on issues ranging from job creation to immigration control.
“I often wonder if it's resentment, jealousy, or just plain shock that's eating away at the president's critics, but the fact is, it took a man who had never held elected office before to finally turn Washington upside-down,” said Erin Montgomery, communications director for the pro-Trump America First Action. “President Trump is on the verge of signing into law the biggest middle-class tax cut in a generation — a tax cut that will also repeal the odious Obamacare mandate.
“Under his leadership, our economy and stock market are booming, ISIS is on the road to defeat, job-killing regulations have been eliminated, and illegal border crossings are down 78 percent,” she continued. “He put a stop to the disastrous Iran deal and increased sanctions on North Korea. He put Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court and cleaned up the Department of Veterans Affairs. Most importantly, President Trump re-lit a fire in the hearts of the forgotten man and woman who had completely lost hope in America's future until he came along.”
Republicans are hopeful this could boost the president’s approval ratings and create a more favorable climate in 2018, making it an election year about jobs and growth rather than tweets and the Russia investigation.
“This will strengthen the resolve of Republicans to get on board,” Serrano said. “If they haven’t been on board, we’re proving them wrong.”