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What The Tax Bill Could Mean For Lawmakers During The Midterms

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's keep this conversation going now with David Brooks of The New York Times. David, welcome.

DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Thank you.

MARTIN: Also here - E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post. He's also co-author of "One Nation After Trump." Welcome back to you also.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Thank you. Happy holidays.

MARTIN: Happy holidays to you. And I'd like to get your reaction to where the president's poll numbers are now and what you see as the playbook for the 2018 elections for both Republicans and the Democrats. And the Democrats at the very least are trying to give the impression that they see new strength on their side. So let's listen to what House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had to say yesterday.

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NANCY PELOSI: The door is open. The president's numbers are in the 30s. I think of his - I think probably his numbers and the support for the tax bill are probably similar. And some of his folks are probably think - you know, giving him the benefit of the doubt. But most people know that they're not getting any tax break in this bill. So it will be an interesting year.

MARTIN: I don't know that I - interesting is an (laughter) understatement I think, E.J. Anyway, so is the door open as Nancy Pelosi said and open to what exactly?

DIONNE: Well, I think the door is wide open, and I think a lot of Republicans are scared to death that it is wide open. If you look at the polls right now - and yes, polls can change. But the Democrats have these enormous leads. And it seems as if you're looking toward an opposition sweep of the sort that the Democrats won in 2006 and the Republicans won in 2010 and again in 2014.

Trump's numbers are simply terrible. I mean, think about it. Nixon on the day he resigned was at 24 percent. There were some polls that show Trump as low as 32 percent. And as Scott Horsley's piece said, this is astonishing given that the economy is in remarkably good shape.

And this tax bill which so clearly tilts toward the very wealthy and corporations is actually giving Democrats an opportunity to say, this guy may have run as a populist, but he's actually the populist from Mar-a-Lago who is helping the kinds of people who belong to his country club, not you. And so I think that's a danger or where the - how the president's numbers could begin to drop further.

MARTIN: And David, what do the Republicans say to Americans who oppose this tax bill?

BROOKS: Well, they're going to say that you get a tax break. Nancy Pelosi in that clip said most Americans do not get a tax break from this bill. That's factually inaccurate. Next year, about 80 percent of the households will get a tax cut, and they average about 2,000 bucks. That's pretty good for most households. People like me always say, well, they're worried about the deficits, and they'll punish the Republicans. That's never actually happened.

So I don't think the tax bill will be a big problem for the Republicans. When people see more money in their paycheck, they'll be happy. But that's not what people are going to be voting on, I don't think. They're voting on Donald Trump. They're voting on the effectiveness of the Republican Party. And there, the numbers - you don't have to be a genius to see. When one party or another - the generic ballot - the - which party do you prefer has up to a - like, a nine-point edge, that party has a tidal wave election. And the Democrats right now have a 13-, 14-point advantage. So that's just a massive swing. And you know, it's quite possible the Republicans will lose both houses.

DIONNE: I just have to note...

MARTIN: Go ahead.

DIONNE: ...That if you average me with Kyrie Irving, I've scored a lot of points in the NBA.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

DIONNE: I mean, this average savings - there are an awful lot of people at the bottom who are going to be getting a couple of bucks a week, not - if that, not even. And a lot of other people are going to get about 20 bucks a week. So it's not a huge tax cut. And Democrats discovered that, you know, smaller tax cuts people don't notice. There was a lot of money...

MARTIN: OK, but...

DIONNE: ...In the stimulus.

MARTIN: But do you credit David's point, though, E.J., that that's really not - David's point is that that's not really the issue - the voting issue. The voting issue is Donald Trump. Do you...

DIONNE: Oh, I totally agree with that. And I think that the voting issue is Donald Trump. But I do think that this tax bill probably aggravates the party's problems, especially, as Geoff Garin told Scott, there - if there were more cuts next year in programs people like.

MARTIN: OK, but let's talk about the Democrats then. If the wind is indeed in their sails, then why didn't they get more out of these negotiations around, say, the government shutdown? I think that's - it's been a busy week I think as a lot of people know. The Republicans passed the tax bill, but then there was the short-term bill to keep the government running for another month - so no shutdown.

But the short-term fix didn't address several other issues like immigration, like the DACA recipients. And there were a lot of feeling on the Democratic side at least that that could have been a bargaining chip for the Democrats. So should they have gotten more out of this last end-of-the-year push?

DIONNE: I think what they decided is that they - if you had a government shutdown over DACA and that was the only issue on the table, they would be the people blamed for a Christmas government shutdown, and they decided it wasn't worth it. What you did note is that there were an awful lot more Democratic votes against this budget than there were the last time they did a short-term extension. So I think there will be a lot of pressure on Democrats but also I think on the Republicans to find a fix for the DACA folks. They are organized, and they're angry.

MARTIN: So let me spend the last couple minutes on something that we talked about last week here. This past Sunday, President Trump was asked whether he was considering firing special counsel Robert Mueller, who's heading up the Russia investigation. The president said that he has not, but that hasn't stopped some Republicans and allies - and Trump allies from criticizing him.

Today a group of former U.S. attorneys on both sides of the aisle sent a letter urging Trump to allow Mueller to do his job. On Wednesday, Virginia Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, had this to say.

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MARK WARNER: Any attempt by this president to remove special counsel Mueller from his position or to pardon key witnesses in any effort to shield them for - from accountability or shut down the investigation would be a gross abuse of power and a flagrant violation of executive branch responsibilities and authorities.

MARTIN: So David, you were talking about this last week. This effort to discredit him doesn't seem to be going away. Has this just become kind of part of the political atmosphere here in Washington?

BROOKS: Well, I mean, the reason it's going - it's still persisting, this talk that he may fire him, is that Donald Trump ran on the idea that there are no honest brokers in American life. Whether it's the media or the institutions, nobody's doing their job honestly. Everybody's partisan. And now he's beginning and other Republicans are beginning to make that attack against Bob Mueller. So consistent - it would be - he's - the guy's unfair; I can therefore fire him. That may still happen.

To me, the most significant thing that happened this week was Warner saying that this is the most important thing he's been involved in in his public life because a lot of us have been wondering, is this all smoke, or is there a fire here? And what Warner has said is that it gives a strong indication there's actually some fire here. And as he said, Bob Mueller has way more investigative tools than his committee does. And Mark Warner's a very straight shooter on this. He's conducted himself quite well so far.

DIONNE: I - yeah, I think David's absolutely right. I think the president's people are scared of what Michael Flynn told Bob Mueller. They - president's people are scared that Mueller has done a lot of work looking at Trump's businesses, looking for a Russia connection. And so this escalation in attacks reflects the fact that they think Mueller is going to come up with something. And I think the warnings you're hearing from Democrats suggest that they're worried that the Republicans are going to throw Mueller under the bus.

MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now. That's E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times. Thank you both so much for being here with us, and happy holidays to you too both.

BROOKS: Thank you.

DIONNE: And to you, too. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: December 23, 2017 at 9:00 PM PST
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Sen. Mark Warner was from Indiana. He's in fact from Virginia.