national circus

How Democrats Can Win the Spin War Over the Trump Tax Cuts

Expect unintended consequences of their tax cuts. Photo: Olivier Douliery/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: the political effects of the GOP tax cuts, the state of relations between the Trump White House and Special Counsel Bob Mueller, and Steven Spielberg’s The Post.

As the Republican tax bill hurtles toward being a done deal, opposition to it has soared, with two-thirds of the public now seeing it as a boon to the wealthy, according to a CNN poll. What will be the consequences of pushing through something that’s so deeply unpopular?

You don’t need to hear from me all the ways in which this egregious bill is a boon to the wealthiest Americans at the expense of everyone else. But the immediate political consequences of the bill are less clearcut. Yes, as things stand now, the bill has the “lowest level of public support for any major piece of legislation enacted in the past three decades,” as USA Today put it; even Obamacare polled higher upon passage in 2009. But it would be foolish for Democrats to assume this makes 2018 a slam dunk: Among other gimmicks, the bill is cleverly structured so that most Americans will see some sort of tax cut, however nominal, in their paychecks next year. Much of the bill’s dire longer-term impact on the middle class and the poor won’t kick in by the 2018 midterms.

This means that the political consequences of the tax bill’s passage could be up for grabs next year. Already, the GOP’s biggest donors, the bill’s biggest beneficiaries, have been pouring money into campaigns to sell it to voters. It’s up to Democrats to get into the trenches with tough and clever counter-messaging that will explain in concrete and un-wonky terms why the bill is a disaster for most Americans. Mere scare words (eg., Nancy Pelosi’s invocation of “Armageddon”) will not reach those turned-off-by-Trump suburbanites who have been defecting from the GOP in special elections this year, from Virginia to Alabama.

The midterms could well be a wave election but not if Democrats fail to make their case and instead repeat the Clinton campaign error of expecting anti-Trumpism to do most of the work for them. In that regard, I have to confess to being baffled by the prevailing liberal political spot on television these days — the ad in which the Democratic billionaire Tom Steyer calls for Trump’s impeachment. David Axelrod was exactly right when he called it “more of a vanity project than a call for action.” What is the ad’s point after all? As long as Congress remains in GOP hands, there will be no impeachment. Period. What anti-Trump voter (now nearly two-thirds of the country) needs to be reminded that this president is unfit for the White House? This ad amounts to little more than a masturbatory diversion, wasting time, energy, and money that could instead be poured into the blistering economic argument required to flip one or both chambers to the Democrats.

Nonetheless, though the Democrats cannot count on Trump doing their work for them, he may yet be a help. He has oversold the tax bill’s potential dividends with his usual panoply of lies and misinformation from the start, and will keep doing so, since it’s the only legislative victory of his presidency. It’s also possible that with this bill in hand — the bill that Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan have cared most passionately about — the GOP will feel free to foil other Trump legislation (if there is any), thus raising already dangerous levels of pique and self-immolation even higher. That’s one unintended consequence of this atrocious legislation that may actually prove enjoyable.

Robert Mueller’s team is expected to meet with President Trump’s lawyers in the coming days, following a wave of partisan attacks on the Mueller investigation.  Will the meeting smooth things over, or is this the beginning of the end of the White House’s cooperation?

Since Thanksgiving, the White House and its auxiliaries, led by Fox News, has been seizing on anything it can to smear the Mueller investigation as biased and corrupt. Many feel, not without reason, that this disinformation campaign is a prelude to Trump firing Mueller, no matter how frequently the White House denies it has any such plan in mind. In any case, nothing will be smoothed over.

But the Washington Post report this week that Trump’s lawyers are meeting with Mueller’s to sound them out on when the investigation will reach its conclusion adds another fascinating element to the portrait of the president’s precarious mental state. As the Post explains, Trump has fully bought into his lawyers’ repeated predictions that the Mueller probe is about to wrap up — an imaginary deadline they first said would be reached by Thanksgiving and then by Christmas and that they now say will be early next year. Though no one can say with certainty what the virtually leakproof Mueller operation’s timetable will be, the Post did find that members of his team have said that their work would take most of 2018, at the least. Yet Trump has completely bought into the fantasy that his long Mueller nightmare is over and that his exoneration is around the corner.

Those sympathetic to Trump are constantly giving blind quotes to the press about the ineptitude of his legal team. That may well be the case. But what’s more revealing is that Trump is so insulated from reality — and surely not just about the Mueller investigation — that he would believe the phony optimism peddled by his lawyers despite publicly known developments (the plea deal of Michael Flynn, for instance) suggesting that the probe is accelerating, not retreating. A 4-year-old who believes in Santa Claus is arguably more in touch with reality than the ostensible leader of the most powerful nation on Earth.

This weekend Steven Spielberg releases The Post, his movie about the publication of the Pentagon Papers and, more broadly, an adversarial press facing off against the White House.  Will his film rally audiences to real news? 

It is hard to imagine a better-timed movie than Spielberg’s retelling of the Post’s decision to join the New York Times in its historic legal and journalistic battle to publish the classified internal history of Vietnam War decision-making, the Pentagon Papers, in 1971, after the Nixon Administration attempted to stop the presses. And the film takes on another timely issue that sets it apart from, say, Spotlight (with which it shares a screenwriter): the role of a brave female corporate pioneer — Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher, inevitably played by Meryl Streep — in leading her paper into an existential battle despite the often condescending opposition of most of the powerful men in her business orbit and her elite Georgetown social circle.

The focus on Graham is a refreshing creative decision on the part of the filmmakers (which includes several female producers): She might well have been dramatized as second fiddle to the Post’s flamboyant and crusading editor, Ben Bradlee, particularly since Bradlee is portrayed by Tom Hanks. But even Hanks’s performance defers generously to Streep’s Graham; his characterization is determinedly non-showy, an unexpected departure from both the public Bradlee persona and the bravura Jason Robards turn in All the President’s Men.

That said, I don’t for a second believe that this movie will be seen by many Americans who dismiss legitimate news media as “fake news” or win over any who wander in by default because they couldn’t get into The Last Jedi. Not unlike those Tom Steyer impeachment ads, The Post will preach, however eloquently, to the choir.

Frank Rich: How Democrats Can Win the Tax Cut Spin War