OPINION — “Nobody likes to give themselves credit for this kind of messaging success, but progressive groups did a really good job of convincing people that Trump raised their taxes when the facts say a clear majority got a tax cut,” Vox senior correspondent Matthew Yglesias tweeted April 8.
Let me get this straight. Yglesias admits that Democrats misled the American people about the Republican tax cut legislation, and that’s OK with him?
What’s most disheartening about this admission is the fact that it comes from a journalist, a journalist who should be disturbed by what he knows was a false narrative perpetrated on voters but instead seems to be cheering on the success of a scheme to disinform the American electorate.
Howard Gleckman, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center, told The New York Times that “the Democrats did a very good job” persuading voters that they wouldn’t get a tax cut.
“They were able to put that into the public perception and the reality has been unable to break that perception.” He’s right.
According to a recent Gallup survey (April 1-9), 49 percent of Americans disapproved of the Republican tax law, while 40 percent approved. Forty-three percent were unsure whether the tax cuts affected their federal tax bill, and 21 percent believed their taxes increased.
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Yet even The New York Times acknowledged in the same story this week, “Experts are divided on whether the tax law was a good idea. But there is little disagreement on this core point: Most people got a tax cut.” Better late than never.
Tell that to the Democrats who went on the attack in the fall of 2017, mischaracterizing and misleading voters about the bill’s provisions with consistently over-the-top language. They called the proposal a “scam” and “brazen theft” (Speaker Nancy Pelosi); a “cynical one-two gut punch to the middle class” (Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer); a plan that would cause “thousands [to] die” (former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers on CNBC); and “one of the great robberies, criminal activities … in the modern history of this country” (Bernie Sanders).
People can disagree on policy positions. That’s the way the legislative process and political campaigns are supposed to work. Democrats could have argued about the Republicans’ distribution of the tax cuts, for example, and offered up a different formula.
But they didn’t. They misled voters. Debating the merits of the tax cut plan is one thing; deliberately misrepresenting the substance of their opponents’ proposals, especially without an objective media to keep all sides honest, is quite another.
And they haven’t stopped. Most of the Democratic presidential hopefuls are virulently opposed to the Trump tax cuts, proposing to repeal key provisions in order to decrease “income inequality,” or in plain talk, find a source to fund their expensive new spending proposals.
There’s been a lot of disinformation floated from the presidential field. What seems to rarely enter the tax cut debate, however, is a little reality, whether it’s about the bill’s impact on the economy over the past two years, or this week, Democrats’ complaints about the size of people’s 2018 federal income tax refunds.
What Democrats and many in the media simply can’t admit is the obvious. The tax overhaul and the administration’s focus on reducing regulations is delivering on Trump’s promise to reinvigorate the economy and create jobs. Republicans have plenty of historical and current evidence to make their case.
Look back to December 2010. Unemployment that month was still at 9.3 percent, despite the Obama administration’s economic stimulus program. Earlier that year, Vice President Joe Biden declared a “Recovery Summer.” Never happened.
In January 2013, however, a Republican Congress made most of the Bush tax cuts permanent and pressured Obama to sign the bill. By the end of that year, unemployment had fallen to 6.7 percent, the largest one-year drop in Obama’s presidency to that point, as the economy finally began to heal. Economic growth, which had been 1.8 percent in 2013, jumped to 2.5 percent GDP in 2014 and 2.9 percent the following year.
Fast-forward to 2017. When Trump took office, unemployment was at 4.7 percent. After passage of the tax cuts in December 2017, the unemployment rate was at 3.9 percent by the end of 2018. In March of this year, it was 3.8 percent.
Since passage of the 2017 Republican tax cuts, economic growth hit nearly 3 percent, with just under 3.4 million new jobs and a 3.2 percent increase in hourly wages. So much for the economic Armageddon predicted by liberal politicians and media pundits.
But still Democrats persist in their disinformation campaign. Sen. Kamala Harris complained in a tweet Monday that “the average tax refund is down about $170 compared to last year” and went on to claim the Trump tax cut is “a middle-class tax hike to line the pockets of already wealthy corporations and the 1 percent.”
Harris might want to brush up on the tax code. She and most of her fellow candidates don’t seem to understand, in their rush to raise taxes, that the tax cuts were designed to increase paychecks, which by definition means smaller refunds.
Gary Cohn, former head of the National Economic Council and one of the architects of the tax legislation, put it this way to Politico, “There was a conscious decision made to get the withholding tables more accurate and therefore give consumers access to their money in real time, week to week, as they got their paychecks, not to have a deferred savings account that they wouldn’t get to touch until April.”
Even The Washington Post earlier this week reported, “Tax refunds tell you nothing about how much someone paid in taxes. Most Americans did pay less in federal taxes in 2018” through “fatter paychecks last year instead of in a one-time payment.” Some might argue that the smartest political move would have been to deliver the middle-class tax cuts in one lump sum at tax time. Instead, Republicans opted to put money in people’s pockets as quickly as possible — the better financial choice for most taxpayers, as over half are living paycheck to paycheck.
But in the end, the Democrats’ disinformation campaign worked. Republicans lost the 2018 midterm election, and with it the House. I’m not suggesting that Republicans didn’t fumble the ball as the 2018 campaign rolled on. With the president focused on immigration rather than the growing economy and the success of his tax cuts while Republican consultants spent millions on an anti-Pelosi strategy, they bear some of the responsibility. So too does the media that failed to call out the Democrats’ disinformation campaign.
That doesn’t mean kowtowing to Republicans, but it does mean holding both parties to a higher standard when it comes to accuracy and facts.
Here’s what a voter told us in a Pittsburgh focus group in January 2018 about the tax cuts: “Republicans were saying it would benefit the middle class. Democrats said it would not. They both couldn’t be true, and I never did figure out which one was true.”
Voters deserve better.
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 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.
Correction 4/20/19, 1:24 p.m. | An earlier version of this story misstated the date the Pittsburgh focus group took place.