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The GOP is trying to pass a super-unpopular agenda — and that's a bad sign for democracy

Political science (and common sense) says they ought to pay a price at the polls. They might not.

Two wealthy looking people at a horse race.	Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Tax experts are in widespread agreement that the GOP tax cuts are bad policy — a giveaway to the rich paid for by the middle class and poor, with little upside for the economy. But Congress writes legislation that experts hate all the time. What’s really striking is that the people Congress is supposed to represent also hate the GOP tax cuts, with only around 30 percent of Americans expressing approval.

Nor are the tax cuts the only recent Republican legislation that has garnered terrible poll numbers. So did the effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Indeed, the GOP health care drive had even less popular support.

Massively unpopular bills used to be unicorns. You didn’t see them. And for an obvious reason: They could cost politicians their jobs. But now we’ve seen two unicorns in the first year of our all-Republican government. What gives?

The puzzle isn’t explaining why the bills are so unpopular: Their basic design runs exactly counter to voters’ stated preferences. Americans don’t consider tax cuts a high priority, and they are spectacularly unenthusiastic about reducing taxes on the rich in particular. Which, it turns out, is exactly what the GOP tax bills aim to do, even as they threaten to raise taxes on many Americans and prompt future spending cuts. Despite all the deception and haste, most voters get this.

The GOP health bills were unpopular for the same basic reason: They sought to impose painful cuts on most Americans while promising lucrative benefits to those at the top of the income distribution (through, yes, tax cuts). Without even a thin candy coating of middle-class goodies, they polled in the low 20s — the lowest reading for any major piece of legislation in at least a generation.

These bills aren’t just unpopular — they may be unprecedentedly unpopular

To put these numbers in perspective, the reviled TARP bill to rescue the financial industry in 2008 — benefiting unpopular companies, attacked as a budget-buster —polled at around 40 percent. Indeed, the GOP tax bills are less popular than any major tax bills of the past quarter-century, including two that required sizable tax increases: the deficit-reduction packages of 1990 and 1993. And both of those measures contained not just new taxes but painful spending cuts too.

So give Republicans credit: Alienating a substantial majority of citizens while adding at least $1 trillion to the deficit isn’t easy. A trillion dollars in borrowed money should buy a lot of good will, especially when you can rely on a conservative media echo-chamber to back you up and your voting base is inclined to support you no matter what.

So what’s going on? The answer can be broken down into two parts: motives and means. Republicans are advancing these initiatives because they really, really want to and because they think they can.

The “really, really want to” part is one of the main political facts of our age. In 1990, the Republican Party split over George H. W. Bush’s reversal of his “read my lips” pledge on tax increases. After his defeat in 1992, the anti-government Newt Gingrich wing of the GOP rose to dominance. Since then, reducing taxes on the wealthy and corporations has always been the top priority of Republican Washington. Recall leading House Republican Tom DeLay insisting during the debate over the Bush tax cuts in the early 2000s that “nothing is more important in a time of war than cutting taxes.”

Republicans have celebrated and promoted a vicious circle in which economic inequality grows, empowering the wealthy, who are then rewarded with policies that further concentrate income and wealth. While Democrats are often torn between their business-oriented contributors and their less affluent voters, the GOP shows no such ambivalence. Indeed, a surprising number have suggested that donors are driving the GOP tax train. As Rep. Chris Collins of New York put it, “My donors are basically saying ‘Get it done or don’t ever call me again.’”

Lots of politicians have some unpopular policy wishes. What’s different now is that the GOP is emboldened to act on them.

Yet if the aspiration to cut taxes on the rich has become a constant, the capacity to deliver these benefits in the face of intense popular disapproval now seems to be supercharged. True, the Bush tax cuts were skewed to the top. But the 2001 and 2003 bills provided “only” around a third of their benefits to the top 1 percent over their first ten years. By contrast, the current tax bills provide roughly 60 percent of their ten-year benefits over the first decade to that group. What’s more, the Senate legislation eliminates essentially all the middle-class benefits after that initial decade to ensure the cuts for corporations and the rich can be made permanent under Senate budget rules.

These less popular moves reflect the less pleasant fiscal situation that GOP leaders now confront. Back in 2001 and 2003, Republicans could sprinkle their tax-cut largesse broadly, and they made no pretense of paying for it in the near term. The resulting bills weren’t wildly popular, polling at around 50 percent. Still, Democrats found it hard to convince voters they should refuse a heaping spoonful of sugar delivered without any medicine — which helps explain why 12 Senate Democrats ultimately supported the 2001 cuts.

Today, in a tougher budgetary climate, Republicans must deliver bitter medicine along with the sugar (with more medicine to come as deficits spike). Unsurprisingly, no Democrats are on board this time. But Republicans are undaunted: Poll numbers that would once have stopped them in their tracks haven’t even slowed them down.

Surely, leaders in the past sometimes wanted to pursue unpopular aims, but didn’t for reasons of political survival. So why are Republicans seemingly unfazed by the unpopularity of their initiatives?

Four potential explanations for Republican boldness

One explanation, perhaps the most important, is that they have built a formidable electoral floodwall. To hold the House, for instance, it’s generally estimated they can afford to lose the national popular vote in 2018 by 6 or 7 points.

Pundits tend to focus on GOP gerrymandering, which certainly bolsters Republicans’ edge in the House. But Republicans are roughly as advantaged in Senate elections, and state lines, unlike district boundaries, are fixed.

The deeper source of their edge is that our system rewards parties for holding territory in addition to garnering votes. In recent decades, the GOP has grown increasingly dominant in the most sparsely populated parts of the nation, as Democrats have gained in crowded urban areas. This is a new development, and it helps Republicans in two fundamental ways. First, it gives Republicans a built-in advantage in the most malapportioned legislature in the rich world: the Senate.

Second, it guarantees a substantial but not overwhelming GOP margin in regions outside major urban centers, especially rural areas (an edge, yes, reinforced by gerrymandering). This distribution of Republicans voters means that the pivotal seats that determine control of Congress are significantly more Republican-leaning than the country as a whole. While a truly massive Democratic surge could overcome these advantages, Republican leaders are betting they can weather a more typical electoral storm.

Their confidence is bolstered by their faith in what political scientists call “negative partisanship.” Voters haven’t just become increasingly partisan; their political preferences are increasingly driven by hatred or fear of the other party. Moreover, such tribalism appears far stronger on the GOP side. In 2016, tens of millions of Republican voters cast their ballot for a presidential candidate they acknowledged was unqualified for the job, mainly because they couldn’t bring themselves to vote for his opponent. Today, most Alabama Republicans seem willing to stick with Roy Moore for the same reason.

For Republicans, negative partisanship provides another layer of cover for pursuing unpopular policies: If voters can be mobilized by animus to the other side, you don’t need to attend to their specific policy preferences.

Which brings us to a third potential source of Republican insulation: They’ve gotten very good at distracting voters. Research on public opinion suggests that voters have relatively short memories and that voter attention is critical to vote choice. What voters are focusing on when they head to the polls may matter more than their more considered thoughts about the issues.

Given Republican leaders’ control of Congress, as well as Republican voters’ fierce attachment to right-leaning media, Republicans now have much greater capacity than Democrats to shape the short-term political agenda. (The attention-grabbing capacity of the tweeter-in-chief surely doesn’t hurt.) This isn’t always a good thing for Republicans, but in the run-up to a fiercely contested election, the ability to direct attention away from unpopular policies and towards whatever stokes tribal loyalty could make the difference.

Finally, the growing role of big money in American politics has not simply increased Republicans’ desire to pass tax cuts. It has also increased their ability to do so, since these actors play a fundamental role in bankrolling and organizing GOP campaigns. Donors, lobbyists, and corporate-backed groups have not always played nice with each other, nor does money dictate campaign outcomes. But these actors were able to coordinate effectively in 2014 to help Republicans take the Senate and hold the House.

And if there’s one thing these groups agree on, it’s backstopping politicians who vote for tax cuts for the wealthy.

An ominous precedent

Whether all this will allow Republicans to survive remains an open question. Political science has a lot to say about why elected representatives have steered clear of hugely unpopular policy initiatives in the past. It has much less to say about what happens when they actually pass such initiatives, since in the past they haven’t.

What we do know is that Republicans expect that they can stick it to voters and still hold onto power. Whether or not they’re correct, they’re sending an alarming message about the fragile state of American democracy: For the people currently wielding power in Washington, the preferences of the American people count for very little.

Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, professors of political science at Yale and Berkeley, respectively, are the authors of American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper.

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