Here’s a word that Republicans are going to make sure that working-class America hears a lot between now until the November elections: crumbs.
It is the scornful description that House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, Calif., used last month, when she summed up the new tax law passed by Republicans as consisting of “the bonus that corporate America received, versus the crumbs that they are giving to workers.”
Her comment was already making its way into Republican talking points and ads. One launched this week by the American Action Network, a well-financed outside group aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., showed Pelosi’s face projected onto buildings along the skyline of San Francisco, a city that the right considers the temple of out-of-touch liberalism.
On Thursday, President Donald Trump went all-in, comparing it to a memorable gaffe in 2016 by Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, when she said that half of Trump’s supporters belong in a “basket of deplorables.”
“Does that make sense — deplorable and crumbs?” Trump asked during his speech to a congressional Republican retreat in West Virginia. “Those two words, they seem to have a resemblance. I hope it has the same meaning. But she called it crumbs, when people are getting $2,000 and $3,000 and $1,000. That’s not crumbs — that’s a lot of money.”
In fact, Pelosi’s comment was taken out of context, and did not refer to the overall effects of the new tax law. When she made it at a Jan. 11 news conference, it was as an answer to a reporter’s question about a recent spate of announcements that corporations have made attributing employee bonuses and wage increases to the new law.
Following Trump’s riff, Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill retorted: “What’s deplorable is Republicans’ desperate effort to hide the multibillion dollar corporate windfalls of the GOP tax scam behind a handful of meager, one-time bonuses. The casual dishonesty of taking Leader Pelosi’s words out of context is nothing compared to the dishonesty of Republicans’ sales pitch on their tax scam itself.”
The changes that Republicans made to the tax code tilt heavily in favor of the rich, and vary widely according to individual circumstances and geography.
But this year, 80 percent of all households will get some kind of tax reduction, with the average receiving around $1,600, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.
That may not be a life-changing sum, but most Americans could easily imagine what they might do with it — put some money away for a child’s college tuition, perhaps, or fix the annoying engine noise of a car they cannot afford to replace.
While the tax law was broadly unpopular when it took effect, recent surveys suggest voters may be warming up to it as they begin to see the changes in their paychecks.
Most dramatic was a Monmouth University poll released Wednesday, which showed that support had rise to 44 percent – up from just 26 percent in mid-December, when lawmakers were getting ready to pass it. It was the first major poll to show the act had just as many supporters as critics.
More worrisome a sign for Democrats in a year when they have high hopes to retake the House is another number in the Monmouth poll: the generic question of whether voters would prefer a Democrat or a Republican to represent them.
The survey showed that Democrats now hold an edge of just two percentage points — down from a 15-point advantage just a month ago.
“The generic congressional ballot is prone to bouncing around for a bit until the campaign really gets underway later this year. But Democrats who counted on riding public hostility toward the tax bill to retake the House may have to rethink that strategy,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
Meanwhile, the larger imperative for Republicans in months ahead is to closely tie the tax law — their one major legislative achievement — to the good feelings that Americans now have about the economy.
Nearly six in 10 Americans say the economy is “good” or “excellent,” according to a recent Washington Post-ABC poll, the highest figure in 17 years. But half say the Obama administration deserves significant credit for the economy, while fewer than four in 10 say the Trump administration does.
Pelosi has long been a foil for Republican candidates, and a villain in their attack ads. Moreover, she has a penchant for saying things that can be easily taken out of context and that come back to haunt her party, such as her infamous remark in the run-up to the passage of the Affordable Care Act that “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it.”
Even many Democrats cringed privately at her “crumbs” comment, which they worry distracts from their larger argument over the fairness of GOP economic policies. And of course, any metaphor that involves baked goods easily lends itself to the Marie Antoinette caricature that Republicans have drawn of Pelosi.
“It sounds like something a wealthy woman from San Francisco would say,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres.
“Her ‘crumbs’ comment is something we think we can use pretty effectively,” added Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, who is chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
For her part, Pelosi has seems to be trying to adjust her language. At a Washington Post Live event on Monday, for instance, she referred to the “goodies” in the tax law.
Asked whether she was backing off her “crumbs” comment, however, the Democratic leader said: “Crumbs, goodies – either one. Because it’s not a question of $1,000, it’s a question of the billions of dollars, the banquet that they have put for the top 1 percent.
“Now, I don’t begrudge anybody their success, their wealth, their achievement. God bless you for that,” Pelosi added. “This is unconscionable that we would have 83 percent of the benefits going to the top 1 percent.”
Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post.