In February, former House Speaker John Boehner spoke about Republican plans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA):
“They’ll fix Obamacare … I shouldn’t have called it repeal and replace because that’s not what’s going to happen. They’re basically going to fix the flaws and put a more conservative box around it.”
Terence Burlij. “Boehner: Obamacare Repeal And Replace ‘Not What’s Going To Happen'”. CNN. 2017.
Fast-forward exactly one month. Boehner sounds more elder statesman than hardball politician. The American Health Care Act (AHCA) that Trump championed as “tremendous” was dead last Friday before a single vote was cast:
“The most conservative members of the House didn’t think that the American Health Care Act would go far enough to eradicate Obamacare, and moderates were concerned about an estimate by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that 24 million Americans would be left without insurance.
Republican leaders bent to the will of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of about 30 hard-line members, agreeing to remove several federal mandates for minimum benefits, including mental health services and some maternity care. But this move still didn’t go far enough to appease members of the caucus. And the concessions alienated several moderates.”
Katie Rogers. “How The Health Care Vote Fell Apart, Step By Step”. New York Times. 2017.
After House Republicans spent years working on repealing the ACA without a clue of what a replacement would look like, Trump, Ryan, and the rest of their party are shifting what’s left of their congressional capital to massive tax cuts.
Meanwhile, the President lashes out:
Democrats are smiling in D.C. that the Freedom Caucus, with the help of Club For Growth and Heritage, have saved Planned Parenthood & Ocare!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 26, 2017
He’s also content with letting the ACA “implode and then explode”, if such a thing is possible:
ObamaCare will explode and we will all get together and piece together a great healthcare plan for THE PEOPLE. Do not worry!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 25, 2017
Both tactics are thinly veiled diversions. There’s a problem at the heart of the 45th presidency. Trump may actually be a horrible deal maker precisely because he’s a liar who’s ignorant of Congressional processes:
“[B]ecause [Trump] has a decades-long reputation for reneging on his promises to counterparties, members are unlikely to trust Trump when he does so. This limits his negotiating toolbox; because Trump can’t be trusted, his promises have to be made good in the bill text itself.
Trump seems to have been personally unprepared for the interconnected nature of healthcare policy. Moving the wrong piece can cause the healthcare market to crash down like a Jenga tower, and Trump has no idea how to determine which blocks are loose.”
Josh Barro. “The Republican Healthcare Plan Just Failed Because Trump Is Bad At Making Deals”. Business Insider. 2017.
But Trump shouldn’t bare all the blame. Speaker Paul Ryan also deserves some, as do House Republicans.
Failing to repeal and replace Obamacare with the AHCA is a unique GOP debacle that reveals a weakness once thought a strength:
“The failure of the Republicans’ three-month blitz to repeal President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement exposed deep divisions in the Republican Party that the election of a Republican president could not mask. It cast a long shadow over the ambitious agenda that Mr. Trump and Republican leaders had promised to enact once their party assumed power at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Robert Pear, Thomas Kaplan and Maggie Haberman. “In Major Defeat For Trump, Push To Repeal Health Law Fails”. New York Times. 2017.
The 241 to 194 advantage House Republicans have over Democrats was seemingly a sure deathblow to the signature achievement of the last administration. Indeed, the GOP was complacent with no help at all from Democrats.
But Republicans’ range of likely to pass alternatives arrived with what I call a “Ryan’s Choice.”
The AHCA’s tax credits alienated the far right Freedom Caucus of predominantly Tea-Party Republicans, as well as Rand Paul and the Libertarian Caucus. The Republican Study Committee, the conservative “center” caucus, maintained its support when the White House nixed the Essential Benefits portion of the AHCA. But that alienated Charlie Dent and the moderate Tuesday Group Republicans. In the end the conservative “center” could not hold against a moderate RINO “left” and a radical right.
A Ryan’s Choice is when you think all the likely options before you are advantageous, until suddenly they aren’t. You then look exactly like what you’ve spent your career avoiding.
How anti-Boehner did Ryan look last Summer while still maintaining K Street cred? How well did he charm virtually everyone on the Right and even some on the Left? What a golden boy Ryan was. Now compare yesterday’s golden boy to today’s whipping boy.
The title of a recent article in the The Atlantic—”Somewhere John Boehner is sipping Merlot”—is so fitting now, particularly given that Ryan is more of a beer guy:
“House Speaker Paul Ryan took a trip down memory lane with the National Review’s Rich Lowry on Friday at the National Review Institute’s 2017 Ideas Summit in Washington, D.C. “So, Medicaid,” Ryan said. “Sending it back to the states, capping its growth rate. We’ve been dreaming of this since I’ve been around — since you and I were drinking at a keg.”
The Trump administration’s analysis of the GOP health-care replacement estimates that 17 million people would lose Medicaid coverage, with even many Republicans thinking the cuts go too far. “If you’re a Republican senator in, say, Ohio, do you really want to cut Medicaid benefits for hundreds of thousands of your constituents?” asks Jeff Spross at The Week. “Ryan is 47 years old, which means that, if he started ‘drinking at a keg’ early in his college career, he’s fantasized about all the poor people who could be stripped of healthcare for nearly three decades,” slammed the progressive blog ThinkProgress.”
I’m no Nancy Pelosi fan. In fact, I can’t wait until she and other old guard corporate Democrats move into the pages of Washington insider history. But compared to Ryan’s poor negotiating since his party won the White House, Pelosi played the game masterfully in 2010. By contrast, Ryan was blinded by ideology and hubris while thinking he was a pragmatist who could make colleagues happy enough to reach a consensus.
Instead of a true majority, House Republicans now look more like what David Stockman calls “a gang of factions”.
John Adams observed that factions destroyed Rome. Today’s House Republicans are blind as well to a founder’s wisdom because the nature of factions is to devour other factions before devouring themselves. Their appearances on CNN, Fox, and MSNBC would have us believe that a particular faction can save America. They’re so wrong.
The GOP has spent two generations countering demographic disadvantages with a series of strategies, gambits, and narratives meant to hijack the true interests of working people.
They began with the Southern Strategy and “law and order” platforms. The Powell memo outlined the next phase. As its conservative, pro-business ideas were adopted throughout the Reagan era corporate and upper class interests (low taxes, less government, a strong military, traditional values) ultimately aligned with those of a segment of the white middle and working class that’s still known as “Reagan Democrats.” Throughout this time the power of right-leaning media to shape and propagate its ideology also increased. The most recent phase, the rise of the Koch-funded Tea Party, alienated or ousted “liberal” Republicans while pulling the party further to the right.
Among the most consequential gains of this 50 year long march are 1,000 legislative seats turned red over the last 8 years and the most sophisticated gerrymandering enterprise that our country has ever seen.
And yet, Paul Ryan’s job is more challenging than Newt Gingrich’s in the 1990s.
Conservatism has become too successful for its own good. The redder the GOP, the more constricted its horizon of possible solutions to the very real problems that many of its own its own constituents face. At the tail end of the party’s ideological transformation is a shift away from governing with answers and towards dismantling without even acknowledging questions. Rightward moves, expected to shift more of the circumstances of modern life to free market forces for the little guy, have actually resulted in suffocated chances for negotiating by their representatives.
This is a strange place where simply saying “No” becomes a means of governing. It’s a weird place where negotiating is a sign of weakness. And it’s ultimately a dark place where strong majorities are alike, but every weak majority is weak in its own way.