Democrats suffered their first major legislative defeat of the Trump era on Wednesday, when congressional Republicans, snake-bitten by internal rifts for the first 11 months of Donald Trump’s presidency, delivered a massive tax overhaul to his desk.
In news conferences, op-eds and social media, Democratic lawmakers railed against the bill, which has more breaks for corporations than individuals and over time skews sharply in favor of the rich and big business, but they ultimately lacked any meaningful power and could not stop its progress.
As Trump and Republicans celebrated at the White House, touting their record after a year of unified control in Washington, Democrats and the liberal opposition come face-to-face with a new set of challenges. Here are four questions for the minority party as it enters 2018 on the heels of a most sobering setback.
1. The tax cuts are already unpopular. Can Democrats keep them that way?
Trump gave Democrats an early Christmas gift Wednesday when he told reporters the repeal of the Obamacare individual coverage mandate, as written into the new tax code, meant “we have essentially repealed Obamacare.” (A line he repeated during the White House festivities.)
From the beginning of the tax fight, Democratic activists sought to tie health care worries to the Republican bill. It worked, but only up to a point. Though significant, the backlash to the new legislation never quite matched the uproar that met GOP efforts to gut Obamacare. Democrats now have a handy soundbite – not just a tweet or a quote in print, but video – to help cement the connection.
But even before Trump spoke, Democrats were operating from political high ground.
In one of the last surveys conducted before Republicans passed their plan, 55% of Americans said they opposed it. That was up from 45% in November. All in favor? 33%. The same poll found that Democrats lead Republicans in a hypothetical congressional midterm vote by nearly 20 points, 56% to 38%.
The goal for Republicans in the coming months will be to reset the terms of the debate. That means convincing struggling middle class and low-income Americans that these tax cuts, so heavily weighted to corporations and the wealthy, are actually a good thing. The GOP will also be hoping that the law, assembled in some haste for passage before the end of the year, doesn’t yield any damaging surprises. Memories of the process will fade for most voters, especially if they can feel a bump in their paychecks, but a stream of unforeseen complications would revive those concerns – and some ill will toward Republicans up for re-election in 2018.
For Democrats, there is both opportunity and peril. They need to connect the new code (again, hat tip to the President here), and its concurrent repeal of the individual mandate, to the rise in health insurance premiums expected to follow as a result. They will also need to articulate – and more on this later – why it should viscerally upset Americans that, even if their own rates go down a few ticks, the wealthiest in society stand to profit so handsomely.
2. Donors will reward Republicans. Can Democrats cash in too?
Republicans were very clear at the outset of the tax fight that, as Sen. Lindsey Graham said, “Failure is not an option.” Others were more precise. Asked about outside pressure to move the tax plan along, GOP Rep. Chris Collins spoke plainly about what he believed was at stake.
“My donors,” he told reporters, “are basically saying, ‘Get it done or don’t ever call me again.’ ”
Those phone lines will likely remain open now, which will be important for Republican efforts to reshape public perception of the new law. How it will stack up against an angry and energized Democratic base is another question.
Expect liberal groups, like MoveOn.org and Indivisible, to reap an early windfall. Democratic campaign arms are already seeking to raise money off the initial outrage. In addition to small dollar donors, they’ll have an angry base of well-off blue state homeowners, who stand to take a swift kick in the pocket when, as outlined in the Republican legislation, state and local property tax deductions are capped at $10,000.
3. How will the grassroots rebound?
One thing Democrats do not have to worry about, at least for now, is whether the grassroots will dry up with the passage of this bill. The resistance (online, but more importantly in the streets and at the polls) to the Trump and Republican agenda shows no signs of abating. And with Alabama Democrat Doug Jones poised to take his seat in the Senate sometime early next year, reducing the Republican majority to 51-49, there is still fresh blood in the water.
The main worry right now for Democrats should be their handling of the fight to renew, restore or make permanent deportation protections for young immigrants under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Party leaders hinted at a deal before the end of 2017, but that seems unlikely now.
Meanwhile, there is a growing movement among elected Democrats, in response to pressure from immigration activists, to bring the government to a standstill until and unless a deal is struck. A number of high profile Democrats have pledged to vote against any new spending package that doesn’t include a clean Dream Act. That’s the demand by activists who recently ended a days-long hunger strike inside a Washington, DC, jail after their arrests Friday during protests at the offices of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, and Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican. A spokesperson said the activists planned on returning to Capitol Hill on Thursday pending their release.
Failure to leverage some kind of deal to protect Dreamers risks, even more so than the tax bill, alienating the base and some of the party’s most effective and energetic grassroots leaders.
4. Can the party craft a coherent, affirmative message for why voters should put them back in power next year?
On Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Bernie Sanders, who traveled the country alongside liberal leaders trying to beat back the tax plan, offered a prediction.
“I think Republicans will rue (this) day,” the Vermont independent told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “They may be celebrating today, but I have the feeling that next November they will not be celebrating quite as much.”
The polls back him up on that, but if the Democrats are going to take back control of the House and, against greater odds, the Senate, candidates in 2018 will need to do more than sit back and hope to get swept up in the expected anti-Trump wave. Accurately diagnosing the short- and long-term effects of the tax bill is part of the job. But this is a larger project for them. And despite recent victories in Virginia and Alabama, it still needs some punching up.
Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts addressed this in an op-ed ahead of the final tax votes. They boiled the challenge down to a simple question, “Does Washington work for all of us or just for those at the top?” It’s a familiar frame but, if delivered with discipline and embraced across the party’s fault lines, a useful one.
If Democrats can name their enemy, state their cause and make their case, then this Wednesday will be remembered as a turning point. If not, Republicans, who finally managed to press their legislative advantage, will be well-positioned to do it again.