Bad policy, unpopular president will help Democrats win in 2018

After Republicans pursued a series of seriously unpopular bills, Democrats are poised to make large gains. The tax law is among the most unpopular in the history of polling because it increases wealth inequality and conflicts with people’s desire for a fairer tax system.

Instead of passing a better crafted, more popular, deficit-neutral tax bill, Republicans went all in to permanently cut taxes for big corporations and wealthy heirs. Even Sen. Susan Collins, who long advocated for processes enabling scrutiny and using expert analysis, put those laudable commitments aside in the rush to pass this law. A special interest loophole added at the end of the process enriches owners of commercial real estate, including the historically disliked President Donald Trump.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is cheered by fellow Republicans as he arrives to sign the final version of the GOP tax bill on Thursday. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Trump betrayed voters who believed his populist messages. He promised to close a loophole that benefits hedge fund managers but didn’t. He said the rich should pay more but the bill he signed lowered the top income tax rate. He said he would simplify the tax code but there are as many brackets as before. Trump said he understood how the system benefited elites and would level the playing field but instead the tax bill bore the marks of literally thousands of lobbyists, enough to outnumber each member of Congress 11 to one. The cries of “Drain the swamp” now seem like a sick joke.

People tend to support who they think is on their side. According to a recent CNN poll in which only 35 percent of people approved of Trump, 63 percent say the tax law will benefit Trump and his family and 66 percent say it will primarily benefit the wealthy, not them.

Any benefits from the tax bill probably won’t make much difference to individuals and communities. People didn’t notice the bigger cuts for the working class in the Obama stimulus. Serious economists don’t think the tax law will produce high-paying jobs, nor change the economic prospects of struggling towns that lost mills and manufacturing.

Repealing the insurance mandate will lead to surging premiums. The Collins-Alexander health policy proposal, which would offset a small part of the increases, was shelved until next year and may never pass despite Collins purportedly predicating her tax vote on it. Higher rates will be announced shortly before the 2018 elections.

While tax and health care policies hurt Republicans, Democrats’ political strengths have been seen through 2017.

Democrats are more enthusiastic than Republicans and they have been turning out to vote. According to an analysis by Nate Silver, in all the special elections since Trump took office, Democrats have done better by an average of 12 percentage points than what would be predicted by the state or district’s partisan lean.

Citizens organized to counter GOP initiatives and those groups will turn to focus on elections, working with existing organizations. That’s what happened in Virginia, where Democrats made gains, as areas that voted Republican had lower turnout than those that supported Democratic candidates.

Democrats could do very well in Maine, but face challenges rooted in demographics. They also need to answer attempts to promote fear and xenophobia.

Nationally, the voters most supportive of Democrats are young voters and people of color. Even in conservative states and areas, white college-educated suburbanites are turning away from Republicans. However, Maine has a relatively old and white population, with the lowest level of college attainment of any New England state.

For Democrats to make gains in Maine, they need to activate suburban voters and young people but also need to go beyond these constituencies.

In 2016, rural voters nationally backed Trump more than city dwellers or people in suburbs. This dynamic helped Trump win Maine’s Second Congressional District.

Now only 28 percent of rural residents across the country approve of the tax law. Non-college whites feel much the same. If this is true in Maine, Democrats can make gains with these voters with the right policy agenda put forth by candidates who are seen as sharing voters’ core values.

The Second District is not as conservative as recent elections might suggest. While its voters opposed referenda regulating guns and hunting, they supported raising the minimum wage and expanding Medicaid.

Opposition to disliked policies and an unpopular president will activate voters, but Democrats everywhere should promote ideas for greater economic opportunity. That won’t just help them win but could turn victories into good governing.


Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.