WASHINGTON — Democrats are out to capitalize on what they believe is growing public sentiment that President Donald Trump, the richest man to call the White House home, is turning his back on the people who got him elected in favor of his wealthy peers. The party is hoping that pitch will pack extra oomph at a time when even some Republicans are raising concerns that the GOP health-care plan could hurt the poor.
Though stung by a series of defeats in special congressional elections, Democrats believe they can make inroads with some of Trump’s most loyal supporters by driving home the combined potential impact of proposed tax cuts that would largely benefit the wealthy and pending health care legislation that would fail to cover tens of millions of Americans enrolled in “Obamacare.”
In a polling memo circulated by the Democratic group Priorities USA, Democrats say they have seen a significant shift in the last two months in the number of people that believe the president sides with the wealthy and big corporations over average Americans. Democrats plan to turn that message into a prominent sales pitch for their candidates and surrogates, and could make it the theme of ads as well.
Guy Cecil, the group’s chairman, said that for the president’s first three months in office, voters who backed President Barack Obama then switched to Trump believed that the new president represented middle-class workers more than he represented the wealthy. But he said that has changed since April.
“People are taking a second look,” says Cecil. “The reason that health care is so powerful is because it directly affects people’s lives and there’s a clear trade-off: You’re giving tax cuts to the rich; you’re taking health care away from everybody else.”
Public polling also turns up growing unease about GOP attention to needs of the middle class. A Pew Research Center poll released last week found 57 percent of respondents said the Democratic Party “cares about the middle class” while 42 percent said that Republicans did.
The White House dismissed the findings.
“Unlike the Democrats who have no agenda and no ideas, the president is working hard to lower the cost of health care, cut taxes for all families and businesses, and create good jobs and higher wages for all,” said White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Trump, of course, has never shied away from being associated with wealth.
His insurgent candidacy for president was built on his business experience, and his time on the reality TV show “The Apprentice” cast him as America’s CEO, with his riches on full display. Even though he refused to release his tax returns, he boasted time and again on the campaign trail about how much money he had, even declaring, “I’m really rich.”
That hasn’t changed since Trump took office. He spends most weekends at one of his opulent resorts, brags about his advisers’ wealth and even told the crowd at an Iowa rally last week that he didn’t “want a poor person” for any senior economic jobs.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that the House health care bill would leave 23 million people without insurance while the Senate would do the same to 22 million, with the brunt falling on older people with lower income. Trump’s proposed budget also targets many of the programs that help low-income Americans, such as help with heating their homes.
Democrats hope it provides more ammunition to revive their effective 2012 attack lines claiming Mitt Romney had turned his back on the working and middle classes.
But what worked against Romney may not necessarily be effective with Trump loyalists.
“The draconian impact of the GOP Trumpcare bill is a potential asset for the Democrats,” said Wendy Schiller, political science professor at Brown University, “but the big obstacle for them is that the bill’s provisions do not take effect until well after 2018, and not entirely until 2025. So it is unclear they will be able to persuade the majority of voters in congressional districts that the sky is falling on health care if nothing much changes.”
Moreover, many of the president’s backers don’t care about Trump’s wealth or his policies, their loyalty instead guided by partisan impulses and Trump’s larger-than-life personality and promises.
“His supporters pay attention to what he’s saying, and less so to either the Democrats or the press,” Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said in an email. “Simply put, Democrats can criticize his health care plan and tax plan as much as they want, but it falls on deaf ears with Trump voters, as they simply tune it out.”
The president’s allies point to all the failed attacks launched at Trump during the campaign and to GOP wins in the recent special elections as evidence that the Democrats won’t be successful if they are simply the anti-Trump party. Former Trump campaign adviser Barry Bennett says the party’s latest strategy is further evidence that the president is “living in their heads.”
“Attacks like these are to define someone and Donald Trump is already completely defined,” Bennett said. “The people of Warren, Ohio, don’t care if he is rich. They care if he is creating jobs.”