“Something has to change. The middle class is shrinking and this is our last chance. This is the bottom of the ninth and there are two outs.”
These were the sobering words of a middle-aged man in a postelection focus group conducted for the Congressional Institute in one of the swing Rust Belt states that tipped the scales for Donald Trump. In all the focus groups I did during and after the last election, this man, more than any other, captured the underlying emotions that drove so many voters to cast their ballot not only for Trump but for a Republican Congress who together, they hoped, would deliver dramatic change.
They understood that voting for Trump entailed some risk. Many were less than enthused over candidate Trump’s bombastic style. But these voters saw the status quo as nothing more than the end of the line for them and their families. They had clear expectations of what they wanted in Washington — change, big change.
Now, a year later, many of these same voters are wondering whether Republicans can get the job done. They’re asking, “Where are the points on the board?” That uncertainty explains the Democrats’ current generic ballot test advantage in recent polls.
But the election is still 11 months away and Republicans have time to turn these numbers around if the first six months of missteps was a stumble, not the new normal.
Margaret Thatcher, a master political strategist who understood the art of governing, once said, “First you win the argument, then you win the vote.”
Unfortunately, because of the legislative process, Republicans have found themselves doing it in reverse. While they have been able to win important votes in the House and some big ones in the Senate, their defense of GOP legislative actions after the fact has been drowned out by negative media coverage and a skeptical public.
Stand and deliver
For congressional Republicans, the biggest stumbling block to winning the argument before the vote has been the challenge of turning conservative principles into outcome-based policy products that matter to people. It is no longer enough to simply identify challenges or outline principles as antidotes to society’s ills. Voters, who are living paycheck to paycheck, want more than principles. They want actual products, real-world solutions to their problems.
Part of the challenge going forward for Republicans is how to unite around solutions and outcomes early in the process. Their attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act earlier this year is prima facie evidence of what happens when you don’t unify.
Despite having seven years to develop a center-right health care plan that would serve as an alternative to Obamacare, Republicans struggled to get beyond a discussion of principles and deliver a health care product that could pass both chambers, get to the president’s desk and resonate with voters.
Their efforts were complicated by negative CBO scoring, Democratic intransigence, intraparty feuds and the parliamentary rules of reconciliation.
President Barack Obama had failed to address the competing factors of supply and demand that are the underlying problem with American health care. What voters wanted in this “ninth inning” was an innovative and comprehensive health care product that addressed the basic economic rules driving up premiums and deductibles.
Without that product, voters simply weren’t buying what Republicans were offering and it showed in the numbers. The GOP brand took a hit; and in the chaos that surrounded the effort, the ACA’s favorable ratings actually improved.
Failure not an option?
When the dust settled after the ACA repeal defeat, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan were left to deal with the reality that voters, waiting for change, were losing confidence in Republicans’ ability to put points on the board. If conservatism wants to claim the mantle of governing, it can’t afford another failure on this scale.
But in America, political fortunes ebb and flow and there’s almost always a second act.
In this case, it’s called tax reform and that’s where Hill Republicans and the president find themselves today — at an inflection point that will likely determine whether Republicans hold the House and Senate next fall. If and how they win the tax reform argument will significantly affect their relationship with voters.
Complicating matters, however, is the fact that they must win in an environment of negative media coverage, harsh Democratic criticism and, frankly, the legitimate but parochial complaints by some Republicans over specific provisions.
There is a solution. Republicans must unify around a tax reform product that voters believe represents dramatic change. The legislative process is a messy business with members fighting for or against particular provisions based on a combination of what’s good for the home front and their own belief systems.
But when internal disagreements publicly shatter unity, the story becomes the process not the product. It gives Democrats, who remain unified in their opposition to any Republican initiative, a real advantage, as the media focuses on their criticisms. This strategy worked for the Democrats in the ACA debate.
Republicans can’t afford a repeat. To win this argument, the tax reform bill needs clearly defined personal outcomes. To blunt the overwhelmingly negative coverage to date, it needs messaging support now to give voters substantive reasons to believe the outcomes can be achieved. This will be even more necessary once tax reform has been passed and signed into law.
In the end, there are two numbers that will matter most in the 2018 election: How many jobs have been created and how much have wages gone up? Transformational tax reform legislation is essential to create the kind of economic growth that delivers both. This is a battle Republicans must win — on the floor and in homes and businesses across the country.
Principles are important. But you can’t win without outcome-based policy products that connect with people.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.