The American public is, shall we say, less than perfectly informed about matters of politics and policy. For instance, people believe that foreign aid makes up a huge portion of the federal budget, when in truth it accounts for less than 1 percent of federal spending. Indeed, if voters were all well-informed, you'd barely need campaigns at all, since people who pay lots of attention to politics and understand issues are almost impervious to the persuasive efforts of 30-second ads and inflammatory mailers.
But every once in a while, the public will actually figure something out on their own and come to an accurate conclusion about a policy. When this happens, one party or the other is bound to be deeply disappointed that their efforts at mass hornswoggling have failed.
This is the position Republicans now find themselves in, as Bloomberg's Sahil Kapur and Joshua Green report:
"A survey commissioned by the Republican National Committee has led the party to a glum conclusion regarding President Donald Trump's signature legislative achievement: Voters overwhelmingly believe his tax overhaul helps the wealthy instead of average Americans.
"By a 2-to-1 margin — 61 percent to 30 percent — respondents said the law benefits “large corporations and rich Americans” over “middle class families,” according to the survey, which was completed on Sept. 2 by the GOP firm Public Opinion Strategies and obtained by Bloomberg News.
“The result was fueled by self-identified independent voters who said by a 36-point margin that large corporations and rich Americans benefit more from the tax law — a result that was even more lopsided among Democrats. Republican voters said by a 38-point margin that the middle class benefits more.”
This information is contained in a slide under the title, “But, we’ve lost the messaging battle on the issue.” Indeed they have — they lost both to the Democrats, and to reality.
The reality is not in dispute. Around two-thirds of the benefits of the tax cuts went to those in the top quintile of taxpayers, with about 20 percent of the benefits going to the richest 1 percent. By 2025, when the cuts are fully phased in, the top 1 percent will get 25 percent of the benefits. The centerpiece of the plan, furthermore, was a gigantic corporate tax cut. Republicans promised that this cut would produce a wave of investment and wage increases for workers, but so far the only wave that has resulted is a tsunami of stock buybacks benefiting wealthy shareholders, which is exactly what liberals predicted.
Those facts are available to anyone who might seek them out, but most people aren't going to. What people do notice, however, is that their paychecks didn't look much bigger after the tax cut. Maybe they're getting a few more dollars a week, but it certainly wasn't life-transforming.
That probably influences perceptions, but I'd contend that where Republicans really lost was not in the fact-checking and media analyses (close as those are to my heart) or even in people's paychecks, but in the relentless Democratic messaging on this issue. It had the benefit of being 1) easy to understand, 2) consistent with what people already believed about Republicans, and 3) completely true. Democrats repeated over and over that this was a tax cut for the wealthy and corporations, which it was. And they didn't have to work particularly hard to convince voters that passing a tax cut for the rich is the kind of thing Republicans do, because we've seen it so many times before.
So what is the Republican answer to their communication failure? Again, from Kapur and Green:
“Still, Republican leaders continue to try to sell the law. They’re planning on holding a floor vote in the House next week for a second phase of tax changes that would make the individual changes permanent. Since it has a slim chance of passing the Senate, the effort is seen as a political messaging tool to remind voters of the cuts and force Democrats to take an uncomfortable vote against tax relief for middle-class Americans.”
That is no doubt what Republicans think, but it’s somewhere between questionable and ridiculous. Why would a vote to reinforce an unpopular law do Republicans any favors, and why would Democrats be uncomfortable voting against it?
I think the answer is that Republicans are so deeply committed to cutting taxes that they can't wrap their heads around the idea that the public doesn't agree with them. Doesn't everyone believe taxes are too high? Aren't tax cuts inherently good? Won't the party that advocates them always be rewarded?
Well, no. As it happens, Americans have surprisingly nuanced views about taxes. Most people think that the amount they have to pay is fair, which makes it harder to make a direct appeal to self-interest by saying "I'll cut your taxes!" Most importantly, when you ask people what bothers them about the tax system, the top responses are that corporations and wealthy people aren't paying their fair share.
So if you're going to pass a huge tax cut whose benefits go mostly to corporations and the wealthy, it would seem almost inevitable that it won't be popular. But Republicans were so convinced of the righteousness of their cause that they convinced themselves that the public would simply have to agree with them.
Even though it didn't work out that way, don't think Republicans have any regrets. They knew that if they did nothing else in the first two years of Donald Trump's presidency, they would cut taxes. Having accomplished that goal, many of them, like Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, are saying their work is done and leaving Congress.
And I promise you that if they lose power in this election or in 2020, the next time Republicans manage to gain control of both the White House and the Congress, the first thing they’ll do is cut taxes. It’s their nature. Whether the public wants it or not.
Paul Waldman is an opinion writer for the Plum Line blog. @paulwaldman1.