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The Party of No Ideas

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© Tom Brenner for The New York Times

By PAUL KRUGMAN, The New York Times

Democrats will almost certainly receive more votes than Republicans in the midterm elections. But gerrymandering and other factors have severely tilted the playing field, so they would need to win the popular vote by a wide margin to retake the House, and a huge margin to retake the Senate. I don’t know how it will turn out — or what will happen to the perceived legitimacy of the federal government if all three branches are controlled by people the voters rejected. Neither does anyone else.

One thing we do know, however, is that Republicans have decisively lost the battle of ideas. All of their major policy moves, on health care, taxes and tariffs, are playing badly with voters.

In fact, Republican policies are so unpopular that the party’s candidates are barely trying to sell them. Instead, they’re pretending to stand for things they actually don’t — like protecting health coverage for Americans with pre-existing conditions — or trying to distract voters with culture war and appeals to white racial identity. The G.O.P. has become the party of no ideas.

Start with health care. Not that long ago attacks on Obamacare were a winning tactic for the G.O.P., but last year’s attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act seems to have concentrated the public’s mind, making many people aware of how much they might lose if it went away. Public support for the act is near all-time highs, with many now saying that the law didn’t go far enough — and Democrats have a large lead as the party that’s better on health care as an issue.

Then there’s taxes. The last time Republicans rammed through big tax cuts, under George W. Bush, they were fairly popular. And the party’s leaders seem to have imagined that the same would be true now. “If we can’t sell this to the American people, we ought to go into another line of work,” declared Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, last December.

Have they sent out their job applications? Because the American people aren’t buying. A few weeks ago an internal G.O.P. survey found that “we’ve lost the messaging battle” on the legislation, with voters overwhelmingly believing that the tax cuts went to corporations and the rich, and many worried that increased deficits will endanger Social Security and Medicare.

Finally, there’s the Donald Trump twist — the one area where he is somewhat at odds with G.O.P. orthodoxy: His economic nationalism, embodied in a rapidly expanding set of import tariffs.

After the 2016 election, many commentators argued that Trump’s Electoral College win reflected a backlash against globalization. And that suggested that his protectionist turn might prove popular. But it hasn’t.

Specifically, trade war is causing Republicans considerable grief in farm country. Meanwhile, tariffs appear to be unpopular in industrial states, too. In fact, it’s hard to find any large group that likes Trump’s trade policy.

Why are Republican policy ideas falling so flat? At one level, the answer is obvious: G.O.P. policies are unpopular because they hurt far more Americans than they help. Why should anyone expect cutting taxes on the rich while taking health care away from the sick to be popular?

The question is why such policies were ever popular. The answer, I think, is that in the past, voters didn’t see the connections.

When Bush pushed through his tax cut, we had a budget surplus, so it wasn’t clear to voters that less revenue might mean cuts to programs they count on. When you push through big tax cuts in the face of a budget deficit — and when your own party has spent years warning about imminent fiscal doom and demanding spending cuts — the implications are more obvious.

In the case of health care, it was a lot easier to peddle scare stories about Obamacare before it went into effect, insuring tens of millions, than it is to defend taking away coverage people already have.

And Trump’s tariffs suffer politically because some Americans are already being hurt, while the supposed beneficiaries have good reason to doubt whether they will be helped. In fact, even as Trump boasts that his steel tariffs have revived the industry, two major steelworker unions have voted to go on strike — because while corporate profits have surged, workers’ wages haven’t.

In short, the American public seems to have wised up; voters seem to have recognized the G.O.P.’s reverse Robin Hood agenda of taking from ordinary families and giving to the rich for what it is.

Of course, Republicans aren’t giving up. If they can’t win on the issues, they’ll try to win on something else — and we know what that something else is. Across America, voters are being barraged with Republican ads showing scary dark people. In Texas, Ted Cruz thinks even a clip of Beto O’Rourke saying perfectly reasonable things to black churchgoers will help his flailing campaign.

And it might work. After all, studies of the 2016 election clearly show that racial resentment, not “economic anxiety,” was what put Trump over the top.

But if the G.O.P. does win, it will have won very, very ugly. And American politics will become even worse.

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