If it were up to congressional Republicans, President Trump would spend the next eight months relentlessly focusing on tax cuts and the growing economy. After all, the tax cut legislation is the only substantive piece of legislation the GOP-controlled Congress has passed, and the economy is one of the few bright spots in an otherwise chaotic and divisive year.
The president, of course, has other ideas. After tossing out his prepared notes at a West Virginia event on tax reform—“That would have been a little boring, a little boring,” he declared—Trump went on to riff about the dangers of the porous U.S. border with Mexico and the oncoming “caravan” of Central American refugees. And, despite handwringing from Wall Street and many in the GOP economic establishment, Trump is moving full-steam ahead on tariffs for Chinese-made products. Axios reported that Trump’s decision on tariffs was made without the input or deliberation of his cabinet or chief of staff.
Republicans fret that Trump’s freewheeling, YOLO-esque style is dangerous to their majority. A trade war will kill them in the Midwest with farmers, they fear, and sink the stock market. Attacks on illegal immigration and a push for “The Wall” may inspire the Trump faithful, but only further alienates the suburban, upscale voters they need to win in November. For example, a Chapman University poll taken in Orange County, a prime battleground for control of the House, showed Trump’s job approval at just 37 percent. Moreover, the biggest concern for residents of the county wasn’t immigration (4 percent) or high taxes (2 percent) but was affordable housing (27 percent). It is worth noting, however, that a number of Orange County cities and towns are formally opposing California's so-called Santuary state law that "in many cases prohibits local law enforcement from alerting federal immigration agents when detainees who may be subject to deportation are released from custody." This may move the issue of immigration onto the front-burner in the county.
Even so, Trump’s contention that tariffs—not taxes—is what inspires his coalition is more right than wrong.
First, the tax cuts themselves aren’t all that popular. Polling taken in March found support for the tax bill underwater. The Real Clear Politics average shows just 39 percent of Americans supporting the legislation to 44 percent opposed to it.
Republicans do support the tax cuts, but they aren’t necessarily an issue that inspires them politically. A HuffPost/YouGov poll taken March 23-26, found that just 14 percent of Republicans named tax reform as a top two issue for them in 2018. Meanwhile, 38 percent picked immigration, and 29 percent picked health care. The economy, however, was also a key factor, with 30 percent of Republicans picking it as a top issue.
Finally, as my colleague David Wasserman contends, tax cuts also represent an existential threat to the social safety net upon which many Trump voters rely and which Trump promised to defend. Look for many other Democrats to copy the language used by Conor Lamb in his special election in Pennsylvania: “The GOP never mentions that their tax plan increases the deficit by $1.5T, or that many Pennsylvanians will have their tax cut wiped out by higher health care premiums, or that their next step is to cut Social Security and Medicaid."
The battle over tax cuts versus tariffs isn’t just a matter of message discipline; it’s also a reflection of the real tension within the modern GOP between its old-line suburban, Chamber of Commerce branch and its newer, more populist and nationalist wing. It’s also a reminder of the that the issues that animate the donor class fall flat with many in the Trump coalition.
Tax cuts and a booming stock market are the kinds of things that typically help Republicans in places like suburban Denver or Chicago or Orange County, California. Yet, these are also the places where Trump and Trumpism are the most problematic. Sure, voters like their growing 401(k) and the de-regulation push by Republicans. But, they hate Trump’s chaotic and divisive style. A trade war with China is going to take away any gains they made in the stock market in 2017.
Meanwhile, Trump voters in exurban or rural America, like to see Trump unleashed. Where many see “trade war” they see a president who isn’t going to let America get pushed around anymore by China. Even wary farmers in red states trust that Trump’s business and negotiation skills are going to prevent a collapse in commodity prices. Confronting Kim Jong-Un may make some establishment types queasy, but it’s also the thing these voters like to see. If the elites say it’s crazy, Trump must be doing something right.
And, of course, the more that the President leans into his instincts, and his Twitter account, the more he inspires and energizes Democratic resistance.
The good news for Republicans is that they continue to be united in support of Trump. The most recent SurveyMonkey data from March found Trump’s approval rating among Republicans between 86-88 percent. The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll pegged that job approval among Republicans at 84 percent. Moreover, as my colleague David Wasserman notes, the media fixation on Stormy Daniels and the Russian meddling in 2016, is not what swing voters care about and has probably taken some edge off the tax/healthcare criticism.
The bad news is that support for Trump is not as intense as dislike for him. In the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 58 percent of those who approve of the job Trump is doing, approve of him strongly. Yet, of those who disapprove of the job he’s doing, a whopping 81 percent feel so strongly. The Survey Monkey poll had similar intensity disparity: 53 percent who approve, approve strongly, but, 78 percent of those who disapprove, disapprove strongly.
It’s that intensity gap that has the GOP worried about the elections this fall. Trump’s instincts tell him that tough talk about immigration and China’s cheating will engage his base. But, what helps win over Republicans on one side (taxes), threatens the security of the other (safety net). What populists see as a hard-nosed negotiator taking on China’s unfair practices, old-line Republicans see as a reckless winging it on major policy with serious economic implications. This tension is what has and will continue to define the GOP era under Trump. And, it’s why trying to get Trump to stick to a "script" isn’t the only challenge for Republicans in 2018.