The same basic cast of characters. A familiar plotline surrounding the aim to protect people. A few new twists, a la “this time, it’s permanent.”
The ad rollout nationwide for "Deadpool 2"? Possibly. Can’t tell from the three trailers out thus far. (Still not the creepiest we’ve seen Ryan Reynolds, though.)
The political campaign on Capitol Hill for Tax Cuts 2.0? Also: quite possibly. The policy initiatives are still being formed.
That’s right. Tax cuts, the big political push last fall during Oscar bait season, are being resurrected as a summer blockbuster, this time with a more populist tone and a tangible result for voters.
And unlike box office numbers and Rotten Tomatoes scores, how the conversations surrounding this potential Republican revisitation of tax cuts are framed could make a difference in who runs Congress for the second half of the Trump administration’s first term.
How Republicans talk about it, when they start talking about it, and whether they can keep distractions to a minimum will make a sizable difference in how the next potential push turns out.
As Tax Day 2017 came and went last week, congressional Republican leaders found themselves faced with a plot twist of their own: Only 27 percent of Americans look favorably at their signature legislative accomplishment, the $1.5 trillion tax reform bill that passed just before Christmas. Morgan Stanley, itself a beneficiary of the bill, came out with a sobering review of the hazards presented by the policy. And politically worrisome, Republicans pulled TV ads off the air in the PA-18 race won by Conor Lamb because the issue was hurting them more than helping them.
Though there were some shortcomings that were associated with the bill — the rushed process late into the final night of a Senate work session, the lack of attention to how it would add to the America’s deficit, and its overall “trickle down” worldview — the overarching motivation was simple:
· Tax cuts are good.
· More money in people’s and corporations’ pockets is better than in government coffers.
· The Republican Congress was looking for a big win to put on the scoreboard.
· With little to no Democrats in support of it, Republicans could pass it and score immediate points to run on in 2018.
But the bill turned out to not be the silver bullet the GOP had been looking for.
Tax reform was not the rising tide that lifted all boats. If anything, the negatives continued to outweigh the positives: The lack of visibility of the individual benefits of the bill, the Republicans’ gamble on communicating the long game of the deepening deficit based on 10-year projections, and reports continuing to look at how most companies were doing stock buybacks or mergers rather than making direct investments in their workforce on a 3-to-1 ratio.
Republicans, to their credit, did focus on the benefits of the jobs bill. The congressional GOP communications team shifted into overdrive to share every single one of the 500 positive stories: wages increased, benefits extended, how the tax provisions allowed for more deductions, etc. On the business side, Walmart, Kroger, UPS, FedEx, and other companies nationwide were touted for spreading some of the wealth to employees.
But those messages clearly didn’t break through to the public. Perhaps because they were anecdotal, perhaps because some were only one-time bonuses compared to the billions corporations were looking at. But mostly because paycheck issues are a communications challenge that require focus, attention, and the ability of voters to look at two paychecks, see a difference, and make the connection to a news story they saw on TV.
And now congressional Republicans are thinking about doubling down on the debate, to run again on tax cuts, to raise the profile of the initial bill’s positive impacts, and also to address the major plothole in the first bill: that the tax cuts for individuals expire after 10 years, while the corporate rates are fixed. (Why? It's a long, wonky story about budget scoring within a 10-year window. Still awake?) The current discussion in policy circles is a framework that would make the individual and family tax cuts a permanent component moving forward.
But the tax cuts push will need to be a digestible, clear message just as much as a fiscal policy if it is to accomplish the dual goals of taxpayer benefits and GOP victory.
Here are four challenges that Republicans would face, from a communications perspective:
1. Any time you go back and do something over again, it invites questions about what, if anything, was done inadequately the first time. What will Hill leaders say is their motivation? Can they point to any recent changes in demographics or economics that they can say was the impetus for returning to tax cuts? Can they boil this down into a simple message?
2. Bringing back the tax cuts bill for a second time resurrects the complaints against the first bill (causing the low approval number): the immense corporate tax cuts, the impact of the bill on the deficit, the lack of permanent cuts for citizens. What simple defense can they lay out that inoculates congressional Republicans from those claims?
3. The tax cut issue is one of the most powerful political tools the Republicans have against Democrats this campaign year, as they can say that their opponents voted against pro-growth tax cuts that helped the economy sustain its momentum. Even one anonymous Republican told the Washington Post:
"Holding another vote would take away one of the bigger hits we have against Democrats for this fall and gives them a chance to take credit for work and progress made by President Trump and Republicans."
This mirrors the sentiment of one of my friends, a former GOP Senate communications staffer, told me: Giving vulnerable Senate Democrats a chance for a mea culpa to cut taxes permanently for hardworking Americans families should be a non-starter in the Senate.
4. Would a second vote be a net positive for Republicans or give the Democrats a chance to erase a major campaign talking point?
The final point, the partisan differentiator, will be the biggest challenge from a communications perspective. The two sides will have very basic messages: Democrats will say they held out on a vote for tax reform until individual cuts were made permanent; Republicans will say that Democrats are election-year converts to an issue that is the cornerstone of the GOP agenda.
If the Republicans decide to go forward with this tax cut sequel, like “Deadpool 2,” it’s going to be a bet that the overall message and experience is one that is a winner for them. Can they find a messaging strategy that focuses on the pluses and minimizes the minuses?
As Republican communications strategist Alex Conant told me, “If the 2018 elections are about tax cuts, Republicans are going to be in good shape.”
Discipline, a strong story to tell, a simple counternarrative against the critics, and the ability to keep this all present, tangible, and in the minds of voters throughout the next 6 or so months. They can be in good shape if the policy, the plausibility, and the positioning remain intact. But in a political environment where the center of political gravity, the president himself, literally tosses the tax law script over his shoulder with a shrug because it bores him – this sequel is no sure thing.
Pass the popcorn.
Matthew Felling (@matthewfelling) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a former print/TV/radio journalist, media critic, and U.S. Senate communications director, now serving as a public affairs and crisis consultant with Burson-Marsteller in Washington.