Back in August, 45 of 48 Senate Democrats signed an open letter to President Donald Trump vowing to oppose any tax reform proposal that included tax cuts for the “top one percent.”
Three Senate Democrats — West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, Indiana’s Joe Donnelly, and North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp — did not. Now, as Republicans gear up to advance a tax bill that would almost certainly reduce the tax burden on the wealthy, liberal activists and organizers on the left are going to work to sink it — beginning by trying to push Manchin, Donnelly, and Heitkamp to come out publicly against the plan.
If any of these Senate Democrats can be convinced to vote for the plan, then Republicans will both get bipartisan cover for the bill and dramatically increase their odds of getting the 50 votes they need, allowing Republicans to notch their first real legislative win and dramatically alter the federal tax code. (Republicans are trying to pass the bill through the reconciliation process, which allows them to bypass the 60 votes they’d need for normal legislation.)
“In the same way we had to target some Democrats to play hardball on health care, we’re going to have to put pressure on Democrats who are weaker on taxes,” said Ezra Levin, co-founder of the national activist group Indivisible. “We’re going to first need a unified Democratic caucus — and then peel away Senate Republicans to defeat this.”
Tax reform poses a set of unique challenges for left-wing advocacy organizations. It does not promise to rip away access to lifesaving care for millions of people; organizers recognize that mobilizing marches and rallies around the abstraction of tax policy may prove more difficult compared to the searing immediacy of health care. But the left has been encouraged by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s strong initial attack against the Trump proposal (he called it “wealth-fare”) — and the fact that no Democrats have publicly embraced it yet. That gives the left hope that they can replicate the playbook they used to take down the Republican health plan.
“The message is going to be simple and clear: This is a huge giveaway for corporations and the wealthy,” Levin said. “I’m optimistic we’ll find creative ways to dramatize this as well.”
The battle to win over Senate Democrats in Trump country
The left’s battle over Trump’s tax reform will begin by trying to unite the entirety of the Democratic caucus in vocal opposition.
So far, about 30 of the 48 Democratic senators have issued statements or given public remarks attacking the tax plan, according to a tally compiled by Vox. About 10 others have criticized elements of the plan while stressing the need to evaluate it further; the remaining handful have generally steered clear of the proposal altogether.
Left-wing groups are demanding that all Senate Democrats speak out against the plan, mirroring a similar demand they made of Democrats over the Republican health plan. Part of their concern is that Democratic senators who represent states won by Trump are under immense political pressure from the White House to back the tax reform overhaul; it will take an equal or greater countervailing force, they say, to prevent them from signing on.
The right’s push is already underway. On Wednesday afternoon, for instance, Trump flew to Indiana on Air Force One with Sen. Donnelly — whose state he won this November by 18 points — and then publicly vowed to come for his seat during a campaign rally before thousands.
“If Donnelly doesn’t approve [the tax plan], because, you know, he’s on the other side ... we will come here, we will campaign against him like you wouldn’t believe,” Trump said before pointing into the crowd, Politico recounted. The crowd then cheered wildly.
The next day, Donnelly issued a statement saying that “the framework released today is missing many details that will be critical to determining whether working- and middle-class families truly stand to benefit.” Other Democrats have similarly kept their cards close to their chest. A spokesperson for Heitkamp — who served as North Dakota’s tax commissioner — said in an email to Vox that “the devil remains in the details — and we still need more details.” Manchin has strongly signaled his willingness to work with the president on tax reform.
Even Democrats in states Trump won who did sign the August pledge did not exactly come out guns blazing against the Republican tax “framework” released on Wednesday. Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who has blasted proposals to cut taxes for the wealthy, began his statement on Trump’s tax proposal by highlighting potential areas of agreement, like the Child Tax Credit. Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow also didn’t promise to oppose the effort in her statement.
The activist groups think this need to change — fast. Some point to statements by those like Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) as the models for what they want to hear from Democrats on tax reform. (Booker, for instance, called the proposed tax framework a “massive tax giveaway to the rich.”) They note that Republican moderates like Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) only came out against the health care proposal after every Senate Democrat had done so.
“As this fight heats up, the importance of a unified chorus of rejection of tax breaks for the Trump family will be increasingly important. Trump’s goal is to convince the public of things that aren’t true, and penetrating through that will require repetition and clarity from the entire Democratic caucus,” said Ben Wikler, Washington director of MoveOn.org, one of the biggest advocacy groups on the left.
The left grapples with mobilizing around the abstraction of taxes
The health care fight produced a powerful and eclectic range of protests, town halls, and acts of civil disobedience across the country. Activists staged “die-ins,” took over Trump Tower, stormed Mitch McConnell’s office in wheelchairs, and even vowed to send their ashes to Paul Ryan.
Now the left is trying to figure out how to recreate the same outpouring of energy (and headlines) over taxes. The campaign “Not One Penny” has been at the forefront of finding pithy, clear ways to illustrate the Republican tax plan. It has gotten 200,000 people to sign a pledge urging Congress to give not one penny in tax cuts to the rich and to corporations, and created a network of 100 field organizers in 35 states. The group has also launched seven-figure TV ad campaigns over the proposal targeting eight vulnerable House Republicans; they also plan to stress that Trump would personally benefit from the tax plan by as much as $1 billion.
“Our campaign has one clear goal: to draw a red line for the sand on no tax cuts for millionaires, billionaires, or wealthy corporations,” said Nicole Gill, the director of Not One Penny. “That’s our bottom line.”
CREDO, one advocacy group, has launched a campaign that placed 1,000 phone calls to the offices of the three Democrats who haven’t signed the tax pledge, as well as Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill.
Beyond that, Indivisible has put out a new website — TrumpTaxScam.org — that will let taxpayers use a “calculator tool” to figure out the bill’s impact on their earnings. And then there’s the “Trump Tax Chicken,” which has become a mainstay of protests over tax reform:
“It may not be as concentrated, but the constituency for fighting on taxes is there — everyone is impacted by this,” said Levin, of Indivisible. “I’m a fan of protests that draw attention in a visual, visceral way. We’ll probably see people in top hats and monocles.”