In reading coverage of the Republican tax bill, which passed the House on Wednesday and is ready for President Trump’s signature, I was reminded of this famous clip of the 1992 “town hall” presidential debate between Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush,1 in which a voter asked the candidates a question about the “national debt” and how it had “personally affected” their lives.
Bush answered the question literally, talking about the effect of the debt on interest rates and awkwardly objecting to the notion that he couldn’t understand the impact of the debt if it hadn’t affected him personally. Clinton understood that the voter was asking about the economy overall — which had recently emerged from a recession — and not the national debt per se. He asked the voter how she was doing personally, and then spoke about people he knew in Arkansas who had lost businesses and jobs. Clinton took the voter seriously but not literally, you might say — and delivered a more effective answer as a result.2
As the GOP tax bill has neared final passage, a number of Republican lawmakers — and some nonpartisan journalists and commentators — have predicted that the bill, which is highly unpopular for now, will become more popular after final passage because voters haven’t yet realized they’re getting a tax cut but will soon receive one.
I wonder if these commentators aren’t making a version of Bush’s mistake, taking voters’ concerns about the bill literally but not seriously.
It’s true that the bill will provide a tax cut next year to most Americans. According to the Tax Policy Center, 80 percent of households will see a federal tax reduction next year as a result of the bill, as compared to 5 percent who see an increase (the remaining 15 percent will see their taxes essentially unchanged). This is improved from previous versions of the bill, because of changes to policies such as the child tax credit and because of more favorable rate schedules. For instance, taxable income between roughly $10,000 and $38,000 dollars will now be taxed at a marginal rate of 12 percent, as compared to 15 percent under current law.
However, most voters don’t expect a tax cut. A Monmouth University poll released this week found that just 14 percent of voters expect their federal taxes to go down, as compared to 50 percent who expect an increase. Once those misinformed voters realize that less is being withheld from their paychecks as a result of the lower tax rates, they’ll come around to supporting the bill, right?
Well, maybe not. For one thing, the voters aren’t necessarily wrong, even in a literal sense, if they’re looking toward the long term.3 Because the cuts to individual tax rates are temporary, 53 percent of households (including 70 percent of households in the middle income quintile) will see an increase in their taxes by 2027 if the law is left intact, according to the Tax Policy Center, as compared to 25 percent who will see a decrease.
But more importantly, voters probably aren’t being quite so single- and literal-minded about whether or not they’re getting a tax cut. Instead, they’re using polling questions like these to signal their overall skepticism and discomfort with the bill — discomfort that also registers when they’re asked other questions about the bill that have nothing to do with their personal finances.
A CNN poll this week, for instance, found that 66 percent of voters expect the bill to do more to benefit the wealthy than the middle class. (Other polls show similar numbers.) Voters have a reasonable basis to be concerned about this. According to the Tax Policy Center, voters in the top income quintile will see an average tax reduction of $7,640 next year, as compared to $930 for the middle income quintile. (High-earners will also do better on a percentage basis.4). The reduction in the top corporate tax rate — to 21 percent from 35 percent — is much more substantial than any of the reduction to individual rates. And the corporate tax cuts are permanent while the individual cuts aren’t.
Voters also have reason to be concerned about deficits — which most economists expect to increase by $1 trillion or more as a result of the Republican bill. For instance, a Marist College poll in September found that, by a 66 percent to 26 percent margin, Americans were opposed to an increase in deficit spending even if it meant they received a tax cut. Voters could also be worried that Republicans will attempt to balance budgets by cutting entitlement programs; after all, the GOP spent most of the year trying to repeal Obamacare, and their tax bill includes a repeal of the Obamacare individual mandate, which the Congressional Budget Office expects to increase health care premiums.
The GOP bill also suffers from not having popular messengers — and from not having a trustworthy message. Trump’s approval rating is 37 percent, close to its all-time low. But Republicans in Congress have even worse numbers, with only about 20 percent of voters approving of the job they’re doing. Party leaders Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan are also highly unpopular. Republicans have also mislead voters about some of the consequences of the bill — although so have Democrats — and they’ve lost their traditional polling lead on Democrats on which party the public trusts more on taxes.
Finally, voters are usually change-averse when it comes to complicated bills that affect their finances. The GOP bill is not really a simplification of the tax code, and in some ways it makes the tax code more complex. And some popular deductions have been removed or capped. Although some voters will see greater take-home pay by early next year as a result of less tax withholding, others will have profound uncertainty about the overall effects of the bill until they pay their 2018 taxes in April, 2019.
For all that said, there are a couple of reasons for Republican optimism. About 15 to 20 percent of voters don’t yet have an opinion about the bill, and those undecided voters are more likely to be Republicans than Democrats; now that the bill has passed, those GOP voters may come around to supporting the bill as a result of partisanship. That won’t make the bill popular overall, but it would improve its numbers around the margin.
And in the long run, any effects the bill has on the economy could outweigh its popularity rating in political importance. This isn’t a panacea for Republicans; voters already feel pretty good about the economy and yet Trump and Republicans are highly unpopular despite that. Also, even pro-free-market economists are skeptical that the bill will improve long-run economic performance, in part because it increases deficits. But if Republicans can steer the discussion of the tax bill into a conversation about how the economy is doing — instead of how voters feel about Trump or the Russia investigation or their unpopular efforts to repeal Obamacare — that’s a conversation they’ll be happy to have.
Nonetheless, if Republicans are looking toward Obamacare for an example of a bill that eventually became popular once voters learned what was in it, they may be waiting a long time. The Affordable Care Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law in March 2010, didn’t become popular until late 2016, after Trump had become president-elect. In the meantime, it contributed to a disastrous midterm for Democrats; a fate that Republicans are increasingly likely to endure next year.