There’s no mystery about the Republican agenda. For at least the past 40 years, the GOP’s central policy goal has been upward redistribution of income: lower taxes for the wealthy, big cuts in programs that help the poor and the middle class. We’ve seen that agenda at work in the policies of every Republican president from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump, every budget proposal from party stars like Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House.
This policy agenda is, however, deeply unpopular. Only small minorities of voters favor tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations; even smaller minorities favor cuts in major social programs. So how does the GOP stay politically competitive? The answer is that the party has mastered the tactics of bait and switch: pretending to stand for one thing, then doing something quite different in office.
But if special elections in the Trump era are any indication, voters are wising up. Rick Saccone, the Republican candidate in a deep-red Pennsylvania congressional district that Trump won by almost 20 points, tried not one, not two, but three different bait-and-switch strategies. And on Tuesday he still seems to have suffered a hair-thin defeat.
At first, Republicans tried to sell their candidate by touting the 2017 tax cuts, which they portrayed as a boon to the middle class. This was classic Bush-era strategy: The Trump tax cuts, like the Bush tax cuts, did indeed offer some temporary relief to middle-class families, although they offered far more to the wealthy.
What makes this a bait and switch is the hard truth that tax cuts must, eventually, be paid for – in fact, people like Ryan barely waited for the ink on the tax bill to dry before proclaiming that social programs must be cut to reduce the budget deficit the tax cuts will do so much to inflate. And under any plausible allocation of the spending cuts needed to offset lost revenue, the tax cuts will leave most Americans worse off (while, of course, benefiting the top 1 percent).
The thing is, voters seem to have realized this. Republican groups pretty much stopped running ads about the tax cuts weeks before the election, apparently concluding that they weren’t gaining much traction. And election night polling suggests that health care – specifically, opposition to GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act – was a key issue in PA-18.
If tax cuts won’t sell, how about tariffs? In 2016 Trump portrayed himself as a different kind of Republican, an economic populist who would stand up for the little guy. In practice, he has been utterly orthodox except for one thing, his willingness to break with free trade. And it’s possible that he announced steel tariffs partly to swing a district in what used to be steel country. Or he may have been trying to steal Stormy Daniels’ thunder. With Trump, you never know.
Anyway, it didn’t work, perhaps because many Pennsylvania voters realize that steel country isn’t what it used to be and that the old days aren’t coming back. These days there are about 10 times as many hospital workers as steel workers in the Pittsburgh area – and surely at least some voters realize that GOP efforts to slash health care threaten their jobs as well as their coverage.
Finally, Republicans pulled out their old standby: trying to distract voters from their economic agenda by appealing to racial, cultural and religious enmity. That’s what Ed Gillespie tried in the Virginia gubernatorial race, and in this latest campaign Saccone proclaimed that Democrats are motivated by “hatred for our country” and “hatred of God.” But it didn’t work either time.
Why not? One answer may be that despite the eruptions of racism and anti-Semitism under Trump, America is on the whole a far more tolerant country than it used to be.
But there are also Trump-specific issues. It’s hard for Republicans to pose as the party of patriotism while slavishly defending a man who holds office in part thanks to Russian intervention and seems almost eager to demonstrate that he really is Vladimir Putin’s puppet.
And despite receiving overwhelming support from white evangelicals – which tells you something about the state of conservative Christianity – Trump is surely the least godly man ever to occupy the White House.
So the upset in Pennsylvania wasn’t just a harbinger of likely Democratic gains to come. It also showed the bankruptcy of all the political strategies Republicans have used to distract voters from an unpopular agenda.
Yet I have to admit that while the wising-up of American voters is deeply encouraging, it also makes me nervous. History says that Republicans won’t change course, because they never do. They’ll just look for bigger distractions.
And with everyone who showed even an occasional sense of responsibility leaving the Trump administration, you have to wonder what comes next. In particular, regimes in trouble – like, say, the Argentine junta in the 1980s – often try to rally the public with dangerous foreign policy adventurism. Are you sure that Trump won’t go that route? Really sure?