Thursday, October 12, 2017

Why Do People Think Tax Reform Will Swing the 2018 Election?

Last week, I described why we should be skeptical of the view that the outcome of the 2018 midterm elections will be substantially affected by whether or not Republicans succeed in enacting tax reform. But my previous post did not explain why such a belief can become widely accepted in Washington despite the lack of hard evidence behind it.

The extent of this acceptance is illustrated by a Wednesday article in the New York Times stating in its second paragraph that "one political and legislative reality is suddenly becoming crystal clear: Republicans must deliver a tax cut or face an epic backlash that would pose a significant threat to their governing majority and long-term political health." The article presents this claim not merely as one plausible account of the electoral stakes of reform but as a "crystal clear" political "reality" beyond legitimate analytical contestation.

The author of the article, a veteran Capitol Hill reporter, is no doubt accurately portraying the prevailing sentiment among Republican members of Congress—and perhaps among Democrats as well. Republicans really do feel desperate to rack up a major legislative accomplishment. Most of them are ideologically committed to tax cuts as a worthy substantive goal, and it's very easy for them to convince themselves that good policy is also good politics. The assertion that failure to enact tax reform will lead to electoral doom in 2018 is also a powerful argument with which to convince fellow partisans to unite around legislation. Everybody had better get with the program, Republican leaders are no doubt telling their membership, or we'll all feel the pain.

Conservative interest groups are sounding the same message. The Times article includes a quote from Scott Reed, a former Republican campaign professional who now works for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, that characterizes success on tax reform as politically "vital" for the Republican Party. Reed's remarks are somewhat amusingly framed as a kind of objective analysis, though they are in fact an act of political advocacy: the Chamber wants tax reform to pass and, toward that end, is naturally promoting the idea all around Washington that the GOP has no choice but to deliver if it wants to stay in power.

But journalists and other analysts do not always concur with the strategic judgment of politicians or accept the self-serving spin of interest groups. Why is the view that tax reform represents a "must-pass" proposition for congressional Republicans so convincing to outside observers?

One answer is that media coverage perennially and systematically overstates the extent to which electoral results reflect the calculated behavior of politicians. This is partially because candidate actions are by far the most visible component of campaign dynamics, and partially because journalists are embedded in the same social environment as politicians and campaign consultants, who also habitually overstate their own influence. Within this world, electoral outcomes are typically interpreted as primarily reflecting the traits of particular candidates or the "messages" with which they court voters. It can be hard to accept that elections are mostly decided on the basis of factors—such as the state of the economy or the job approval rating of the president—that are mostly out of the control of congressional incumbents and their advisors.

But there's something else at work as well. Human nature encourages us to perceive the existence of a kind of cosmic justice in which good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are punished. If a "good" congressional party is focused, harmonious, and legislatively prolific, and a "bad" party is fractious, undisciplined, and unproductive, it's only natural to believe in a world in which a partisan majority that delivers on its policy goals and commitments goes on to reap electoral benefits from a grateful public while one that fails to do so faces the righteous wrath of a betrayed citizenry.

Trouble is, history gives us no particular reason to believe that this is how the world of politics actually works. The current state of the Republican Party is itself a testament to the lack of reliable correlation between popular success and leadership ability; the GOP is in its strongest electoral position since the 1920s but is arguably less equipped to govern, at least at the federal level, than at any point in living memory. Likewise, the Democrats of the late 1930s and 1940s were very good at winning national elections and not very good at uniting behind a common policy agenda.

If there is an actual iron law of politics, it's that few benefits are unaccompanied by corresponding costs and that trade-offs and paradoxes abound. (Hence the seemingly oxymoronic title of this blog.)

Sometimes Congress does little and voters reelect its members anyway; sometimes it does a lot and voters respond by rebelling. Democrats produced a series of major legislative initiatives in 2009–2010 and were "rewarded" with the enduring loss of their congressional majority. Republicans adeptly harnessed popular resentment against Barack Obama to win control of the House of Representatives in 2010 and the Senate in 2014, but that same resentment led to the rise of a troublesome Tea Party movement and the installation of an unusually unpopular and ineffective president as party leader. And it is that president, not their own legislative record (or lack thereof), that represents the biggest impediment to Republican electoral success in 2018.