Democrats have suffered a series of close losses in special elections in 2017, contributing to the broad sense, especially among Democrats themselves, that Donald Trump had a kind of supernatural appeal that defied political physics and rendered metrics such as his dismal approval rating suspect.
The anti-incumbent wave in Virginia has dispelled that particular form of magical thinking. Trump is a deeply unpopular president, and his party is in serious danger of losing control of the House, many of its down-ballot offices, and conceivably even the Senate.
To be sure, Virginia has unique demographic qualities that may have enhanced the power of the anti-Trump wave. It is a racially diverse state with a high proportion of college-educated voters. But there are many House Republicans from districts with similar demographic profiles — in New Jersey, New York, and California, among other places. The suburbs alone could offer up enough Republican defeats to flip the House in 2018.
What is remarkable is that the Republican plan to avert this catastrophe is to inflict economic hardship on these very constituents. The party has convinced itself that the solution to its unpopularity is to vote through an unpopular plan to combine tax cuts for corporations and rich people with tax increases on a large minority of the middle class. The highest doses of fiscal pain of the Republican plan would be concentrated on upper-middle-class voters who live in blue states — like, say, New Jersey, New York, and California.
Republicans believe regressive tax cuts hold the solution to any problem — the economy is too slow, the economy might become slow in the future, the surplus is too high, there’s a war, etc. Many of them will convince themselves that the Virginia blowout is all the more reason to pass their tax cut (as opposed to finding some actually popular measures to pass). And maybe there is a certain logic to this. If they have rented the government for two years, they might as well get some mileage out of it.
But there is also a heavy dose of genuine self-delusion at work. Since 2000, Democrats have been talking about Republican tax cuts benefiting the richest one percent. Conservatives have grown so habituated to denying or dismissing this figure, they have failed to wrestle with its implications. When they are committed to transferring resources to one percent of the public, Democrats can stand for the interests of 99 percent. They don’t need to take a radical left-wing stance to oppose the GOP agenda. They can defend the prerogatives of fairly affluent voters who are still getting hurt at the expense of the super-rich. It is a very favorable position.
In the meantime, there is no sign of any corrective impulse within the Republican ranks. Its voters are too far gone, locked into the bubble of party-controlled media and unable to grasp the need for a course correction. Fox News and other conservative media have already shifted the blame onto Ed Gillespie and his supposed failure to embrace Trump, after Gillespie had won the praise of no less a Trumpian loyalist than Steve Bannon. Its elites can think of no course of action other than to extract as much value as they can, as quickly as they can. They are going to face a reckoning.