Shortly before passing a far-reaching but unpopular bill on a party line vote, the Speaker of the House assured critics that people would like it once they felt its benefits.

That was 2010, and it didn’t work out for Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat in charge of the House at the time, or for the Obamacare health-care bill. It remained unpopular, even after health coverage was extended to millions of people. Democrats lost the House that November and the Senate four years later.

Now, Pelosi and her party will try to turn the tables, targeting the GOP’s main achievement of 2017: tax legislation that, so far, rates poorly with the public. Republicans are pitching its middle-class benefits and potential economic growth to win over wary voters, but Democrats have united in labeling it a “tax scam” that benefits the wealthy and corporations.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

“The American people will see through what this is, which is a scam,” said Representative Ben Ray Luján, who chairs the House Democrats’ campaign arm. “This bill is terribly unpopular across America,” he said, adding that the party’s internal polling shows it to be unpopular “especially in swing states.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, says he’s utterly untroubled by Democrats’ threats.

“No concerns, whatsoever,” Ryan said Tuesday during a news conference. He added: “Results are going to make this popular.”

Once American wage earners see their paychecks in February 2018—after employers have adjusted withholding—they’ll start to appreciate what a boon they’ve received, he said. He and other GOP leaders also cite what they say will be a major boost to the economy, pushing annual growth to 3 percent.

Average Tax Cut

Polls suggest Democrats are winning in the early rounds. Half the public thinks they’ll pay higher taxes under the Republican overhaul, according to a Monmouth University poll conducted from Dec. 10 to Dec. 12 that had similar findings to other studies. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday found that voters prefer Democrats over the GOP to run Congress by 50 percent to 39 percent, a margin that election analysts say could flip both chambers.

“People say the proof’s in the pudding. The proof’s in the paycheck,” GOP Senator Rob Portman of Ohio said Tuesday during the debate that preceded the Senate vote on the tax bill.

Plenty of paychecks may not rise that much, based on an analysis this week. In 2018, the bill’s average tax cut for the bottom 80 percent of earners would be $675, according to an analysis by the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. That’s about $13 a week.

It’s also smaller than a one-year, $800 tax cut for married couples in 95 percent of working households that was part of the 2009 economic-stimulus package. That earlier tax break bombed politically—just 12 percent believed they got a tax cut, a 2010 poll showed.

Higher earners will get a larger break next year, an average of $50,000 apiece for the top 1 percent and $190,000 for the top 0.1 percent, the policy center’s analysis found.

McConnell’s Plans

Regardless, if Republicans can persuade the public of their bill’s broad benefits, few voters will examine the fine print—and the legislation, which represents the party’s first major success this year, appears to have energized its leaders.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said early Wednesday that he looks forward to making the case for the tax legislation’s broad benefits.

“If we can’t sell this to the American people, we ought to go into another line of work,” he said during a news conference after the vote. He also said he doesn’t think Republicans will have the same issue Democrats had with Obamacare.

“I think it’s a little bit easier to sell that you have more money in your pocket than it is to say the government is running your health-care system,” he said after Senate approved the legislation on a 51-48 party line vote.

The promised economic growth also remains to be seen. Last week, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen told reporters that she doesn’t think the tax plan would lead to a major growth boost. Fed policy makers have boosted their economic forecast in 2018 to 2.5 percent from 2.1 percent, but they’ve left their estimate of the economy’s long-run growth rate unchanged, at 1.8 percent, according to the median projection of policy makers released last week.

“It’s not a gigantic increase in growth,” Yellen said during a news conference.

Schumer’s Taunt

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, taunted Republicans over the poll numbers Tuesday night. “My Republican colleagues have done what’s nearly impossible,” he said. “They’ve managed to make a tax cut bill even less popular than previous tax hikes.”

Still, Republicans say they’re already seeing the effects of their policies and are confident the upswing will continue.

“We will go sell it based upon the success that it brings. I could already sell to you that what we’re doing right now—the stock market and peoples’ 401(k)s are very favorable,” said Representative Pete Sessions, a Republican who represents a suburban swing district in the Dallas area.

He said it won’t cost Republicans any House seats in 2018 “if it works the way we say it’s going to.”

In the Senate, Democrats will need to gain just two seats to win control of the chamber. Their best opportunities are believed to be in open seats in Arizona and Tennessee, as well as a challenge to Nevada Senator Dean Heller.

McConnell, in an interview, attributed the bill’s lack of popularity to “overwhelmingly negative” press coverage, and argued that Americans will come to view it favorably once Republicans sell the bill and its positive effects.

“The public hasn’t heard the arguments yet,” he said. “Most of the press, left of center, has been trashing the bill quite consistently. The ultimate sales jobs will be done in the Senate races around the country in the fall.”

And he offered a preview of the GOP’s message:

“The Democratic Party today is the party of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders,” he said. “If the Democrats take over the Senate next year, we’d look for most of these tax reductions to go away entirely.”

Bloomberg News