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Opinion: Thinking Small When the Big Picture Looks Cloudy

Americans are seeking comfort in the little things — and that could hurt Democrats

As the GOP takes a victory lap after their big tax bill win, voters are looking elsewhere, Curtis writes.(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
As the GOP takes a victory lap after their big tax bill win, voters are looking elsewhere, Curtis writes.(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Polls that show a view of Congress mighty low and sinking fast invariably find voters more satisfied with their own representatives. Thumbs-down verdicts for Washington and the “swamp” in general often turn rosier when dealing with particulars.

That fact, plus gerrymandered districts and restrictive voting laws, is reason enough for Democrats to be cautious when predicting a 2018 blue electoral wave. Americans are thinking small these days, preferring to stick with the familiar and close-to-home when confronted with issues that gobble up all the oxygen in the room and the brain.

At the least, taking time for family, home, neighborhood and church is one way to make sense of life and change the things you can, as the famous “Serenity Prayer” counsels. It’s the opposite of traditional advice to look at the “big picture” for perspective when little things don’t go your way. 

The big-picture news this week is, of course, the transformation of the U.S. tax system, done without support from Democrats and without a public hearing. It and President Donald Trump are unpopular, but will that change as the effects of the bill start to shake out?

Watch: Thunderous Applause as House Passes Tax Overhaul

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It depends on which predictions to believe, though most are sprinkled with partisan tinsel.

Republicans and President Trump see their big picture — a legislative win for a party in need of a high-profile one moving into 2018. Trump has called the bill “one of the great Christmas gifts” for the middle class; expect a signing ceremony fit for a real estate mogul who just happens to be a beneficiary of changes in the tax code.

Speaker of the House Paul D. Ryan’s feet have barely touched the ground as he makes the rounds celebrating the bill — though he needs to tone down the gleeful grin or risk comparisons to a demented Santa Claus or Grinch. “This is our chance, this is our moment,” he said. Is the former Ayn Rand fanboy imagining changes to so-called entitlements such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security to trim a looming deficit? Ryan is definitely coming into his own.

Who loses, who wins

Democrats see a bill that disproportionately helps corporations and the wealthy, with no guarantee the benefits will trickle down. The repeal of the individual mandate provision of the Affordable Care Act might mean rising health care costs for the older and sicker Americans left in the pool.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer tweeted, “I believe the entire Republican Party, will come to rue the day they voted for the #GOPTaxScam,” calling to mind a reckoning. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said it was “government for sale.”

The newly elected Alabama senator, Doug Jones, dodged putting his thoughts on the record, since the GOP rushed the bill to the floor before he took his seat.

You have to pity the poor IRS and those who faithfully serve. All must contend with criticism from government and the citizenry as well as staffing and budget cuts while having enforcement and explanation of this complicated bill dumped in their laps.

Voters, who might have appreciated a clearer picture from Democratic opponents of what a bipartisan bill would look like, instead can expect a year of nonstop messaging on the bill’s positives and negatives and jockeying for political gain, with an occasional nod to middle-class Americans, a group exalted or ignored, depending on the situation.

The GOP is Anxious to Be Productive: 4 Takeaways From the 2018 Congressional Calendar

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Small comfort

All the while, many questions on the bill have yet to be answered.

The biggest winners, besides the tax lawyers and preparers poised to decipher what even the folks who signed on seem uncertain of, look to be corporations and businesses — so the holiday hope is that they’ll translate their gain to jobs and fatter paychecks.

Against this backdrop, funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program is still not locked down, with parents as well as Democratic and Republican governors looking to Washington lawmakers while drawing up plans to fill the gap. And it might have escaped notice amid other noise-making news that most Americans believe race relations after Trump’s election have gotten — no surprise — worse.

Is it any wonder that Angel Tree tags asking for a winter coat or grocery store gift card fly off Christmas trees dotting every space people gather, and food bank contributions see an uptick? When Crystal Pacheco, a first-grader from South Texas, asked Santa for a ball, blanket and food, and her teacher shared her note, the school received enough donations for her and every student.

These are the things we can control, wishes made and granted.

There is uncertainty on the tax bill, and on the biggest of big pictures — the future of a country that has been split along so many political, economic and social lines in this last year.

When that picture turns gloomy or slides out of focus, tightening the lens — particularly during a holiday season — might be the most comforting option of all.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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