Last December, after Senate Republicans successfully passed a $1.5 trillion tax cut, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell went to the floor of the US Senate and declared, “If we can’t sell this to the American people, we ought to go into another line of work.”
Senator McConnell, you might want to call your office.
According to a report last week from Bloomberg News, an internal Republican National Committee poll shows that the GOP’s top legislative accomplishment has become an albatross around the neck of the party. By a margin of 61 percent to 30 percent, those polled view the tax cut as benefiting “large corporations and rich Americans” over “middle class families.” A majority of voters fear that the measure will lead to cuts in Social Security and Medicare to reduce the deficit, something that Republicans have already hinted at.
According to the RNC report, “We’ve lost the messaging battle on the issue,” which interestingly is attributed to “a fairly disciplined Democrat attack against the recent tax cuts.”
In some respects, one didn’t need to see this survey to understand how decidedly unhelpful the GOP tax cut has been for the party’s candidates. Try finding a Republican office-seeker who has made the tax bill the centerpiece of their campaign. More often than not, Republicans are running away from the issue.
In an August special election in Ohio, in a wealthy district that would seem, on the surface, to be most amenable to a business-friendly tax cut message, the GOP focus shifted from taxes to culture war issues and negative attacks, when it became clear that the former message wasn’t working. Even back in March, only months after the tax bill had become law, Republicans took a similar approach, abandoning the tax bill for predictable attacks on sanctuary cities.
It should be said that Democrats are not necessarily running against the tax measure, except in states, particularly in the Northeast, where the elimination of the state and local tax deduction has cost taxpayers thousands of dollars. In those places, the tax bill could end up contributing to the Republicans losing more than a handful of seats.
But the GOP tax cut bill was supposed to be the centerpiece of the party’s midterm campaign. That Republicans are running away from the bill, rather than running on it, is a political disaster for the party. It gives Republicans literally no positive message for the midterms and forces them into the position of running a scorched-earth campaign against Democrats.
What about the GOP’s other major legislative priority, repealing the Affordable Care Act ?
That’s an even bigger political liability for Republicans. Health care has become the unifying issue for Democrats this cycle — in both blue states and red states. It’s the issue most likely to show up in ads for Democratic candidates, and it’s the one that’s put Republicans furthest on the defensive.
The irony is that the GOP didn’t even succeed in scrapping the health care bill — and amazingly, some congressional Republicans are talking about reviving the issue if they hold their majorities in Congress. So in the end, Republicans get no credit on this issue from their own voters and venom from those who lean left.
The messaging failures on the tax cut and the legislative failures on health care only compound the challenge facing Republica0n candidates. It’s hard enough to hold seats in a midterm election when your party controls the White House. It’s even more difficult when that president is as deeply unpopular and reviled as President Trump. But when your two signature legislative priorities provide zero political benefit — and actually are a liability — you’re pushing a very large rock up a hill.
Republicans are being hurt not just by their radioactive president, but also by their own failure of governance.
This doesn’t mean Republicans are a lock to lose the House or Senate (though the House is looking rather tenuous), but it magnifies the significance of the challenge they are facing. It’s also the reason why, Senator McConnell, a bunch of Republicans might be looking for new jobs come November.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.