Republican candidates are still claiming credit for the buoyant economy, and some polls show them holding a substantial advantage over Democrats regarding which party can best promote prosperity. But the specific Republican policy initiatives that most directly affect voters’ economic circumstances haven’t proven nearly as popular.
While Republicans first expected the tax cut to anchor their midterm campaign, the public reaction to it has soured over the election year. An early October CNBC survey found that while 54 percent of Americans believe that the law provided “a lot of” benefits to large corporations, and 52 percent think that it similarly benefited the wealthy, the share who believe that it helped other groups is much smaller: 15 percent saw such gains for small business, 11 percent for average taxpayers, and a measly 8 percent for themselves personally. In campaigns across the country, Democrats have directly attacked the tax cut as a giveaway to the wealthy that will eventually compel Republicans to cut Social Security and Medicare.
The GOP’s relationship with the ACA is even more tenuous. For four consecutive elections, from 2010 through 2016, the vast majority of Republican candidates at every level ran on promises to repeal the ACA. But after Republicans gained unified control of Congress and the White House in 2016 and sought to repeal the law, they faced unexpected institutional and public resistance. Almost every major medical organization opposed repeal. And after years that saw more Americans opposing than backing the law, public opinion during the repeal fight tilted toward support, where it has remained ever since. In polling by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, individual elements of the law have proven even more popular.
Kaiser’s polling has found that nearly three-fifths of adults living in states that have not expanded Medicaid under the ACA support doing so. Even more emphatically, about three-fourths of all Americans back the law’s requirement that insurers cover patients with preexisting conditions at no surcharge.
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Eliminating those protections was not an ancillary part of the GOP’s repeal legislation. It was an expression of the bill’s core philosophical argument: that the ACA compelled younger, healthy people to buy more insurance than they needed to subsidize consumers who were older or had greater health needs. Undoing that subsidy—or, more technically, disaggregating the risk pool—was the GOP plan’s central mechanism for lowering insurance premiums for the young and healthy. But the price of that was always reducing the affordability and availability of coverage for those who are old and sick.
One unequivocal message of the 2018 campaign is that the public rejects this trade. That clear consensus has compelled backflips from Republicans. Perhaps no one has become more contorted than Representative Martha McSally, now the GOP’s Senate candidate in Arizona. According to multiple sources, McSally, a former Air Force fighter pilot, rallied her colleagues with Top Gun swagger just before the repeal vote: “Let’s get this f-ing thing done,” she declared as legislators moved toward the floor. Now, in her television advertising, she insists that she’s “leading the fight” to “force insurance companies to cover preexisting conditions.” To borrow from her military career, that would define “leading the fight” as flying in precisely the opposite direction from the target.