Somewhere, not that long ago, we’ve heard all these arguments before.
Republicans finally have their longed-for tax reform, but now they have to sell it. And the rhetoric they are using to do so is raising comparisons to desperate Democratic efforts to mitigate the unpopularity of Obamacare seven years ago.
In short: It will get more popular once people learn more about it and the other party stops criticizing it.
“I got to say, out there on TV telling mistruths, disguising the facts of this thing, that’s going to make it unpopular,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, said Tuesday.
“The lies that have been spread, they vanish because you see what’s in the bill,” Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York said in 2010, predicting that when seniors got better access to prescription drugs and small businesses secured tax cuts under the new law, the public would quickly embrace it.
Every big piece of legislation is a leap of faith, especially those, like the GOP’s latest triumph and the Affordable Care Act, that are passed along purely partisan lines.
Back in 2010, the ACA was viewed by the public almost as unfavorably as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act – which Tuesday night was saddled with a long, legislative-ese name – is now.
At that time, according to a CNN Opinion Research Poll, 59% of Americans opposed Obamacare, as Republicans torched the plan as a huge government takeover of health care. On Tuesday, a new CNN poll found that 55% of voters opposed the controversial Republican tax bill, which is branded by Democrats as a massive bonanza for the rich.
Back in 2010, President Barack Obama’s White House rationalized the ACA’s unpopularity by arguing that it was the process of passing the bill, not the benefits contained in it, that were unpopular. Officials also accused Republicans of diminishing the measure’s support by demonizing its provisions. Democrats voiced repeated confidence that once it became law, Americans would love it.
In early March 2010, the White House was betting that while Obamacare was unpopular with voters, opinion would soon turn in the favor of Democrats, The New York Times reported.
“The President has always subscribed to the notion that the politics will catch up,” then-White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told the paper.
Top Senate Democrats shared those hopes.
“I think as people learn about the bill, and now that the bill is enacted, it’s going to become more and more popular,” Schumer, now the Senate minority leader, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on March 28, 2010. Six months later, Obama’s then senior political adviser David Axelrod, a few weeks ahead of a midterm election that saw the GOP win back the House – partly owing to the ACA’s unpopularity – also predicted that voters would eventually rebound to the President’s favor.
“I think that health care over time is going to become more popular,” Axelrod said on “Meet the Press” on September 12, 2010.
In some ways, Axelrod was correct, despite the midterm election rout. Obamacare did slowly become more popular, and by the time Trump and the GOP attempted to repeal it this year it was marginally positive in public perceptions.
But those modest polling increases came far too late to help Democrats and Obama, a factor Republicans may bear in mind as they contemplate the chances of the tax bill reviving their own dinged polling numbers.
What Republicans are saying now
Ryan, as he celebrated the House’s initial passage of the tax bill on Tuesday, was in the exact opposite position as he was when Democrats used their monopoly on Washington power to pass the ACA.
But his comments sounded awfully familiar, as he blamed Democrats for making the bill unpopular and he said he had “no concerns whatsoever” about the measure’s public standing.
“When people see their withholding improving, when they see the jobs occurring, when they see bigger paychecks, a fairer tax system, a simpler tax code, that’s what’s going to produce the results,” Ryan said, in another echo of Schumer.
Republican Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois on Tuesday adopted a novel argument, saying the tax reform bill’s huge unpopularity was actually an advantage because it created “low expectations” that would cause a sudden surge in popularity.
“I think this is going to be far more pleasant for people,” Roskam said on CNN’s “New Day.”
Another Republican, Sen. John Kennedy, of Louisiana, also adopted a familiar Obamacare defense when he argued that the tax reform bill was unpopular only because people did not yet understand what was in it:
“A lot of the stuff that never made sense to me, we cleaned up, and once folks learn that, they’ll be appreciative.”
McConnell: ‘it is the right thing to do’
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been adopting a loftier defense of the bill, arguing that patriotism requires lawmakers to do their duty to pass it.
“It’s not just a question of making people happy. It’s a question of getting the country growing again,” the Kentucky Republican said on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show earlier this month. “I hear the bill’s not very popular, but plenty of times when you try to do a big bill, it’s not popular. But it is the right thing to do.”
The “right thing to do” argument is one that is often rolled out to convince lawmakers to take a vote that might come back to haunt them – or to console members of Congress whose political courage costs them their seats.
McConnell might not have remembered, but Obama made similar arguments to reconcile the price paid by some Democratic lawmakers for backing the ACA.
“They had a chance to insure millions … but then this same vote would likely cost them their new seats, perhaps end their political careers,” Obama said as he accepted the Profiles in Courage Award at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston months after leaving office. “These men and women did the right thing.”
What happens next?
Of course, there is no certainty that just because Obamacare was unpopular when it passed, and reaped a heavy political toll, that the GOP’s big tax bill will have a similar effect.
But given the outrage among Democrats over its passage – The Center for American Progress’s president and CEO, Neera Tanden, branded the tax “scam” as “immoral” and “venal” on Tuesday – the new law could mobilize progressives, just as the ACA whipped up conservative enthusiasm ahead of the 2010 midterms.
“This tax bill will be an anchor around the ankles of every Republican. If they haven’t learned it yet, they’re going to learn it next November,” Schumer said on Tuesday.
By the end of the day, Ryan had endured enough of the comparison.
“The Affordable Care Act proved to reduce health care choices, to raise premiums, to make health care unaffordable,” Ryan said.
“This is going to do the opposite. This is going to grow the economy. It’s going to increase paychecks. It is going to increase take-home pay. And that, I believe, is going to be very popular.”
Only time will tell.