The Return of the Moral Majority

Voters aren’t casting ballots based on their economic self-interest, but on their values. In the Trump era, that’s a huge problem for Republicans.

An effigy of President Trump at a protest against the tax-overhaul plan in front of the New York Stock Exchange on Tuesday
AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Dec. 19, 2017, 8 p.m.

Clinton adviser James Carville made the case for the centrality of the economy in politics more memorably than anyone before him when he quipped that “the economy, stupid” would be the defining issue against George H.W. Bush in the 1992 election. Economists and political scientists produce election models relying heavily on economic performance to predict future outcomes. By this standard alone, these should be heady times for the Trump administration.

The stock market is setting record highs on a regular basis, and the unemployment rate is as low as it’s been since the 2008 recession. President Trump is poised to sign a tax cut into law that would give Americans more take-home pay, traditionally a winning issue for the Republican Party. If history is any guide, Trump is positioned to “own” the economy with his tax plan and benefit if growth continues at a healthy pace.

But anyone who watches the news knows that the political reality for Trump and the GOP is a lot gloomier than the economy would suggest. The president’s job approval is mired below 40 percent—the worst of any first-year president since polling began—and has fallen even as the economy’s performance improves. Republicans trail by double-digits on the generic ballot in the latest national polls, a sign of a Democratic tsunami approaching. By a significant margin, Americans disapprove of the president’s tax plan and don’t believe it will help them pay the bills.

The new reality: Americans are voting their values, not their pocketbooks. And that’s alarming news for Republicans looking to hold their increasingly tenuous congressional majorities. It’s also a danger signal for Trump if he’s thinking about running for reelection in 2020.

Trump’s conduct in office is the defining issue in the country, one so central to next year’s midterms that Democratic candidates don’t even need to mention the president’s name to rile up their supporters. The big battles that have driven activists in the Trump era—the president’s travel ban, outrage over Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the fight to preserve legal status for children of undocumented immigrants—are rooted in the nation’s cultural divisions.

For Democrats, enforcing a no-tolerance standard for any sexual misconduct is an issue as important to their base as expanding Medicaid. Republican activists, meanwhile, get more exercised over whether NFL players stand for the national anthem than they do over Congress’s failure to repeal Obamacare.

The GOP’s tax legislation is a case study in how economic self-interest has little to do with voting habits. On paper, well-off suburban families—at least those outside of high-tax states like New Jersey, New York, and California—stand to gain the most from the legislation. The bill lowers their overall tax rate, doubles the standard deduction for families, and increases the child tax credit. But a new Monmouth poll shows the plan polls particularly poorly with the highest earners (those making over $100,000 a year), with just 28 percent of respondents favoring the plan and 47 percent disapproving. A separate poll on the tax plan, conducted by CNN, found that the strongest support for the bill (46 percent) came from working-class white voters who wouldn’t benefit nearly as much.

Even Republican strategists, most of whom argued a tax cut was politically necessary to improve the GOP’s chances of holding the House, are more circumspect about the legislation’s impact. A poll conducted by the GOP firm Public Opinion Strategies found that Democrats held a 12-point lead on the generic ballot before hearing the debate on the tax legislation. After friendly messaging was tested, the Democratic lead narrowed only to 8 points — still a substantial advantage.

Democrats will undoubtedly try to dislodge Trump supporters from the Republican Party by making the case that his economic policies favor the well-to-do. But the wind driving the emerging political wave has nothing to do with economic policy. It’s been whipped up by antipathy to Trump and his chaotic conduct in office.

Trump can hope that he’ll get more credit for the economy’s health than the party he represents. It’s possible that by the next presidential campaign, the economy will be roaring and the president will be able to use his tax plan to take credit for its health. Like Barack Obama before him, Trump will find it easier to turn out his partisans in a presidential year than in a midterm election. Trump will eagerly campaign on the hot-button cultural issues that drive his base—the ones that most traditional Republican lawmakers avoid like the plague.

But it’s more likely that Trump has permanently squandered any goodwill with his racial demagoguery, ill-informed tweets, and acidic attacks against his critics—all taking place alongside Robert Mueller’s exhaustive investigation examining why Trumpworld has acted so solicitously towards Russia. It’s why his approval rating is stuck in the dumps despite an awfully productive first year in office. And it’s why his political fortunes—along with those of his adopted party—aren’t likely to change much no matter how good things get for Americans.

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