(CNN)In Washington, the burning debate is whether any of the legal challenges swirling around President Donald Trump will directly connect him to a criminal act.
The connection that may decide 2018 isn't what you think
But the Democratic hopes of retaking the House, the Senate or both could pivot on whether the party can complete a very different connection: linking voters' perceptions of the Republican tax bill with the GOP's persistent efforts, in that bill and elsewhere, to roll back the federal role in guaranteeing access to health care.
Trump's legal and ethical troubles -- which took yet another dizzying turn last week with the scattershot revelations from his new legal adviser, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani -- are dominating the national news and blotting out other issues as thoroughly as an eclipse. That was symbolized last Friday, when Giuliani's unexpected revelations linking Trump to the payment made to adult film star Stormy Daniels almost obliterated coverage of the one-year anniversary of the House Republican vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
But in the district-by-district battle to retake the House, many Democrats are focusing less on condemning Trump's character than on discrediting the Republican agenda. Central to that mission is arguing that the GOP has benefited the wealthy, and burdened the middle class, with its twin legislative priorities of the past 17 months: passing a large tax cut and attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Most political professionals and journalists talk about "the health care repeal and the Trump tax plan as two different issues," says Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic consultant working with outside groups supporting the ACA. "The voters see them as ways Washington isn't looking out for them. ... On both of them, it's basically the same: they [Congressional Republicans] have been giving tax breaks to health insurance companies, to pharmaceutical companies and those come at the expense of people who work for a living. It means higher health care costs, eventually higher taxes, more debt for your kids, and cuts to Social Security and Medicare as you get older."
Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a longtime party electoral strategist, is dubious that Democrats can connect the tax cut and health care vote in a manner that erodes support for each, largely because the full ACA repeal didn't become law. What Republicans did accomplish in the tax bill was to zero out the penalty associated with not obtaining health insurance, which is likely to have the effect of tilting the insurance pool more heavily toward those with greater health needs, ultimately raising premiums. Elsewhere, Trump has made clear he intends to starve the ACA through administrative actions where he can. But Cole said he believes the two issues won't cross over.
"I don't see it as nearly as salient an issue," Cole says. "It's hard to beat you on a vote you didn't succeed on. The ACA wasn't repealed, and the only part of it that was was the least popular part: the individual mandate."
But Democrats see reason for optimism in polls from the Kaiser Family Foundation showing that more Americans now view the ACA favorably than unfavorably and significantly more trust Democrats than Republicans to handle health care issues. A wide array of other surveys have found rising health care costs spiking to the top of the public's list of priorities for Washington.
"This is the first real election that the defense of the ACA has turned into an asset," says Chris Jennings, a veteran Democratic health care expert.
The solidifying Democratic decision to focus their local messaging more on health care and taxes than the ethical and legal storms constantly battering Trump represents an attempt to learn distinct lessons from the experience of both Bill and Hillary Clinton.
The Hillary Clinton lesson is a negative one. In 2016, Clinton and the principal super PAC supporting her, Priorities USA, bet most of their chips on disqualifying Trump personally for voters.
Initially, both the campaign and the super PAC signaled that they would place a heavy emphasis on undermining Trump's claim that as president he would champion the interests of average families. But after some initial salvos (notably a Hillary Clinton speech in Atlantic City that accused Trump of bilking small business contractors at his hotel), the party largely dropped that argument. Instead it focused mostly on painting Trump as unfit to serve as president, by morals, temperament and judgment.
That case clearly found an audience: In the exit poll on Election Day in 2016, 61% of voters said they did not believe Trump was qualified to serve as president and 63% said they did not believe he was temperamentally suited for the job. But in the end, those concerns were not disqualifying for enough people: Nearly one-fifth of the voters who expressed such negative opinions about Trump personally still supported him over Hillary Clinton.
The hard lesson many Democrats took from that experience is that if voters believe Trump is fighting for them, even some of those uneasy about his volatile personal behavior will excuse or at least accept it. Recent polling offers evidence that dynamic is holding. The nonpartisan Pew Research Center found last week that the share of Americans who say they "don't like" Trump's conduct as President remains very high, at 54%. But the same national survey found that the share of Americans who say they mostly agree with Trump on issues has significantly increased, from only 33% last August -- just after the ACA debate had peaked in the Senate -- to 41% now.
In new polling from CNN and SSRS released Monday, Trump's overall approval rating was similarly 41%, but he has seen improvement on key issues like the economy, where 52% approve of his performance.
Not surprisingly, the Pew poll found that over three-fourths of those who said they didn't like Trump's behavior said they planned to vote Democratic for Congress, while over four-fifths of the smaller group that liked his behavior (about 1-in-5 adults overall) said they intended to vote Republican. Most telling perhaps was that a commanding majority of the roughly one-fourth of adults who said they had mixed feelings about Trump's personal behavior also said they intended to vote Republican in November. That suggested that even amid the unrelenting national media focus on Trump's ethical and moral controversies, Democrats were still struggling to reach beyond the universe of voters -- admittedly a big pool -- personally alienated from the President.
If Hillary Clinton's excessive focus on Trump's character in 2016 offers a negative model on how to reach those voters, Bill Clinton's experience provides a more successful political precedent. After Clinton's chaotic first two years in office, he suffered a resounding repudiation when voters in 1994 swept Republicans to control of both the House and Senate. Led by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the new GOP majorities moved quickly to press their advantage by passing a budget plan that cut taxes and slashed federal spending. But Clinton revived his presidency by arguing that Republicans had paid for their tax cut through simultaneous spending reductions in Medicare and Medicaid (as well as education and the environment). After two epic confrontations that shut down the government, Clinton forced the GOP to back down, pushed his job approval rating back past 50% and set himself on a path for an unexpectedly easy re-election in 1996.
Democrats today are increasingly paralleling Bill Clinton's arguments from that era. Last month, the House Majority PAC, a leading Democratic super political action committee, ran digital ads against three Republican House incumbents -- Andy Barr in Kentucky, Kevin Yoder in Kansas and Bruce Poliquin in Maine -- that echoed Clinton's case during his showdown with Gingrich. Tellingly, the ads connected the GOP agenda not to Trump but to House Speaker Paul Ryan as the embodiment of the congressional Republican majority.
"Paul Ryan gave his wealthy friends a massive tax cut while cheating hardworking American families out of health care coverage," the ad declared. "And to pay for the tax giveaway, Ryan has a plan to cut Medicare for seniors before he's through." (That last segment refers to Ryan's long-standing hope of converting Medicare into a "premium support" system that provides seniors a fixed sum of money, or voucher, to buy private insurance.)
Democratic strategists such as Ferguson, and Charlie Kelly, the House Majority PAC's executive director, see these messages not as competing but complementary to the national debate over whether the Republican-led Congress is providing Trump a blank check.
"That conversation is happening," Kelly says. "The thing that really impacts individuals day to day are these kitchen table issues that are front and center and very personal. Health care is very personal, and it is something that is going to be a large focus for us."
Democrats talk about the twin arguments operating almost in a form of political stereo. They believe the controversies around Trump dominating the national media are energizing turnout from the party's base (and inhibiting the GOP's ability to advance any message selling its agenda) while the focus on taxes and health care functions as a persuasion tool for reaching swing voters. Particularly with working-class white women, whose votes were essential to Trump's 2016 victory, "health care is the tip of the spear" for winning them back, Ferguson says. Indeed, when the Democratic group Democracy Corps on Monday released a memo on focus groups it recently conducted in blue-collar Macomb County, Michigan, it reported, "In every focus group we hear more and more about the crippling cost of health care, especially among the women."
It's virtually certain that the repeal of the ACA's individual mandate and other changes Trump has imposed on the law will lead to significant increases in health insurance premiums later this year -- a process that began, ironically, on the one-year anniversary of the repeal vote last Friday when two large insurers in Virginia proposed substantial hikes. That could benefit Democratic efforts to maintain focus on the Republican efforts to repeal the law; so will the promises from Republican candidates, such as Nevada Sen. Dean Heller and Pennsylvania Rep. Lou Barletta -- who is seeking to unseat Democratic Sen. Bob Casey -- that they will mount a renewed repeal effort if they maintain congressional control after November.
But the debate over the health care law, the tax bill and the relationship between them is far from settled for either side. Opinion on the tax plan itself has slipped into negative territory, but with unemployment plummeting, most voters still favor the GOP on the broader issue of promoting the economy. While the ACA now draws more support than opposition overall in the Kaiser survey, opinion remains slightly negative among white voters, at a time when college-educated white men and non-college white women loom as the most conflicted constituencies in the electorate. In the Pew polling, far more people in each of those two groups expressed negative than positive views about Trump's behavior; but nearly half in both said they agreed with him on most issues, according to detailed results provided by Pew. Most important, both groups learned toward the GOP when asked which party they intend to support in November.
Such results bolster Cole's confidence that Democrats won't succeed in wielding the ACA vote against Republicans.
"I think it works with people you already have, but it doesn't convince people in the middle," he says. "Until we see tangible legislation and it moves through the process in some meaningful way, and I don't expect that through the end of the year."
Hillary Clinton's failure to effectively dislodge Trump from his claim to champion working families proved to be perhaps the crucial messaging failure of her campaign. Now Democrats are making a second attempt at defining the Trump-era GOP as phony populists more committed to benefiting the wealthy and big business. That won't be easy while the economy is growing, and Trump is daily playing so many chords -- from economic nationalism on trade to racially tinged populism on immigration and crime -- that resonate with white working-class voters.
Succeed or fail, the Democratic efforts against Republicans in Congress this fall will offer a revealing trial run for the much larger test looming for 2020: challenging the billionaire President's identity as a working-class hero.