Updated on December 20 at 3:21 p.m.
Have you ever come up with what you think is the perfect Christmas gift—a well-chosen, carefully considered present—only for the recipient to react not just with indifference, but with outright hostility? Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, and Paul Ryan can sympathize.
Most Americans will save money under the tax bill that the Senate passed Tuesday night and the House passed Wednesday. The size of that benefit varies, but 80 percent of households will see some benefit in 2018. (The cuts shrink over time, eventually reduced to nothing for most people in 2027.) It’s not just that a plurality of respondents in a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll say the cuts are a bad idea (41-24, with 35 percent unsure or holding no opinion), or might have bad long-term effects. It’s that only 17 percent actually believe they’ll get a break. That result is in line with other polls that have shown similar skepticism about receiving any benefit.
Republican leaders insist that once people start seeing the benefits, their views on the taxes will turn around. “If we can’t sell this to the American people then we should be in another line of work,” McConnell said early Wednesday morning. Whether or not that is true, the unpopularity of the cuts now is remarkable. Who doesn’t like free money?
President Trump’s theory for unawareness about the impending tax cuts is unsurprising, since it’s his standard explanation for all of his travails. “The Tax Cuts are so large and so meaningful, and yet the Fake News is working overtime to follow the lead of their friends, the defeated Dems, and only demean,” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning. “This is truly a case where the results will speak for themselves, starting very soon. Jobs, Jobs, Jobs!” McConnell griped at reporters Tuesday night, “Your job is to use the Democrats’ talking points. I understand that.”
Coverage of the bill has been negative—Fareed Zakaria called it “possibly the worst piece of major legislation in a generation”—but while that can’t help, placing the blame entirely on the press overestimates its influence and ignores that portions of the bill are simply unpopular, and that’s after tens of millions of dollars in ad spending to boost its approval. The bill’s unpopularity might also be traced to anger about the fact that it undermines the newly popular Affordable Care Act, or awareness that its cuts will eventually expire, but that’s different from the strictly empirical whether it will reduce tax bills in the immediate term. Besides, the number of people directly affected by the changes to health care is small.
A more likely factor is that many people don’t understand the bill very well. Compared to other legislation of similar scope, including previous changes to the tax code, this bill moved through Congress at a breakneck pace. That was a political calculation, in two ways: First, Republicans were eager to notch a legislative victory before the end of the year, after a chaotic and frustrating 2017, and they wanted to meet Trump’s deadline for a tax cut before the end of the year. Second, GOP leaders figured that moving the legislation quickly would make it hard for the bill’s opponents to rally against the bill. They’d watched Democrats sink repeated attempts at Obamacare reform, and they recalled their own months-long battle to undermine Obamacare at its inception.
The rush succeeded, defying the widespread conventional wisdom that passing legislation by the end of the year was impossible. But while it solved some political problems, it created others. First, there’s been little time for anyone to understand what’s in the bill, much less how it will affect their own pocketbooks. It’s hard to blame ordinary Americans: Even Republicans involved in the drafting don’t understand it. On Tuesday, HuffPost’s Matt Fuller asked 18 members before he was able to get one to name the brackets in the new bill; House Ways and Means Chair Kevin Brady said he knew them but wouldn’t say what they were. Senator Bob Corker, accused of flipping to support the bill after a provision was added that would personally benefit him, defended himself by saying he hadn’t read the bill. If the people who passed the bill haven’t read it and can’t understand it, it’s no wonder that the public doesn’t either.
Another consequence of the contracted legislative process was that the bill contained, at various times, a range of improbable or politically ill-advised provisions. This included, for example, eliminating the ability to deduct taxes paid to state and local governments, a provision that would have slammed graduate students, and another that would have eliminated a deduction for teachers who purchase classroom supplies. The latter two of these ideas encountered harsh pushback and were ultimately dropped from the final bill, while the final bill opted for a $10,000 cap on the state-and-local tax deduction. The focus on these provisions and others like them hurt the bill’s approval and fostered the impression among various parts of the populace that they might be punished rather than rewarded by the new tax code.
Though Democrats could not stop the bill, their messaging, much maligned in recent months, won the day. They were successfully able to convince the public that the bill was geared toward giving corporations a huge, permanent tax cut, while giving individuals only a temporary one; and that the benefits of the bill would accrue overwhelmingly to wealthy taxpayers. This message had the virtue of being true, and it drowned out the GOP message of a tax cut for nearly everyone, at least in the immediate term. In the NBC/WSJ poll, respondents were correctly able to say that wealthy Americans and corporations would pay lower taxes, but pluralities believed that both their own families and middle-class families in general would actually pay more.
Republicans were busy rewriting the bill, and their attempts to sell its benefits were sometimes clumsy, like this weirdly specific scenario that Senator John Cornyn of Texas offered:
Under #TaxCutsandJobsAct a married couple earning $100,000 per year ($60,000 from wages, $25,000 from their non-corporate business, and $15,000 in business income) will receive a tax cut of $2,603.50, a reduction of nearly 24 percent.— Senator John Cornyn (@JohnCornyn) December 19, 2017
When McConnell said that Republicans should find a new line of work if they couldn’t sell the bill, he could have been referring to his own majority whip.
Democrats had the advantage of lots of free time to push their message because they were entirely shut out of the process. Usually the party in power attempts to court at least a few members of the opposition on major legislation like this, in order to give the bill an aura of bipartisanship. (Obamacare is a notable recent example of a party-line vote; Democrats claim they worked hard to get Republicans on board, while Republicans beg to differ.) Republicans barely even went through the motions of recruiting Democrats in either chamber for this bill, calculating that they could pass it without assistance. They were proven correct, but it’s amazing that Democrats were able to hold the line, without a single member voting for a bill that would cut taxes for nearly all Americans.
The strictly partisan nature of the process hurts the bill’s reception, and one reason that voters don’t expect to see any benefit may be that they simply don’t trust the Republicans. Trump’s approval rating continues its historic slump; the portion of Americans who disapprove of congressional Republicans is just about the same as the portion who will see a tax cut—four out of five. By a four-point margin, respondents in the NBC/WSJ poll even said they trust Democrats more on taxes than the GOP, a reversal from recent trends.
Historically, the impression that most people will see no benefit is not an outlier. For most people, the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, provided a net benefit and had little effect on premiums, but there was widespread expectation that would it increase costs. President Obama also pushed through a tax cut for most Americans, but in a February 2010 poll, only 12 percent of respondents said they’d gotten a tax cut, versus 53 percent who said there had been no change and roughly a quarter who said their taxes had risen.
Those results aren’t exactly heartening for Republicans, though. Once people get in their head that a bill doesn’t help them, it’s surprisingly challenging to convince them otherwise. You won’t find a lot of people who remember Obama primarily as a tax cutter, and Obamacare only became popular when Republicans began seriously attempting to repeal it. Unlike the Affordable Care Act, however, the individual tax cuts aren’t permanent—they’ll expire in 10 years unless renewed, and in the interim, many benefits will expire and others will be eroded by inflation. That will complicate the GOP’s challenge in winning over the public. If it can’t, given the Democratic Party’s large and growing lead on the generic congressional ballot, voters may take McConnell’s advice and ensure that GOP members of Congress have no choice but to switch careers.