As two more Senate Republicans, Jerry Moran of Kansas and Mike Lee of Utah, announced their opposition to the Senate health care bill Monday night, the time has come to declare the Republican health care plan dead — and Obamacare very much alive.
The GOP’s health care failure reflects one of the enduring truisms of modern America politics: once a government benefit is created, it is almost impossible to take it away. For all of the American people’s rhetorical complaints about “big government” and “out-of-control spending,” the reality is that Americans do not just rely on government benefits — they love them.
If ever there was a time to prove this notion wrong, it was this year. Republicans, who have spent 40 plus years, complaining incessantly about the growth of the welfare state, controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. They weren’t just going to get rid of Obamacare, they wanted to eviscerate another longstanding government benefit program — Medicaid.
Monday, it all came crashing down around them, which is reflective of another more recent truism: The Republican Party no longer knows how to legislate. They are party dedicated to political aggrandizement, and that’s basically it.
Indeed, it’s fitting that the face of the Senate health care bill has been that of Mitch McConnell. Many in Washington consider the Senate majority leader to be a brilliant, and brazenly cynical, political tactician. But this claim to fame comes not from his ability to move legislation through the Senate. He’s never really done that. Rather, the accolades for McConnell are a result of his ability to stop things.
He spent the Obama years organizing Republicans around an agenda of mindless obstructionism. From a policy perspective, it was a middling success. Democrats still passed a massive stimulus bill in 2009. They passed Obamacare, Dodd-Frank legislation, the START Treaty, and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, but, truth be told, not much else. From a political perspective McConnell’s gambit worked like gangbusters. It helped Republicans win back the House in 2010, the Senate in 2014, and, arguably, the White House in 2016.
But as any parent who has dealt with a headstrong child can tell you, saying “no” is easy. Getting something done is much harder. In that realm, McConnell has few discernible skills. It’s highly debatable that McConnell ever could have moved an Obamacare replacement bill through the Senate, but the strategy he did embark on was an unmitigated failure. He wrote the bill behind closed doors, which meant that when it was released it would have few supporters in the GOP caucus. He sought to appease right-wing conservatives in the hopes that moderate Republicans would cave, but that created another nearly impossible circle to square — and, ironically, it was two conservatives, in safe red state seats, who delivered the kill shot to his efforts. With few votes to spare, McConnell was betting all his chips on an inside straight and he lost. It certainly didn’t help that sitting in the White House is a Republican president with little interest in, or even basic knowledge of, policy. Trump and the Republicans didn’t want to make the health care system better; they wanted a political win.
This speaks to a much bigger problem for Republicans — and the country. The GOP has spent decades demonizing government programs and have portrayed any new government initiative as a threat to freedom, among other things. They’ve portrayed compromise with Democrats as akin to appeasement. They’ve rhetorically embraced a policy agenda that runs counter to what voters — even their own supporters — actually want. Indeed, Obamacare’s survival is yet one more reminder that it’s impossible to reconcile Republican antigovernment rhetoric with the American people’s actual preference for “big government.” Above all, Republican have made seeking out political advantage their only consistent and enduring principle.
In an ideal word Republicans would recognize their defeat on Obamacare and reach out to Democrats in trying to craft a bill that would strengthen, not undermine, the health care system. That may someday happen. For now, McConnell is asking his members to vote on a full repeal of Obamacare that would lead to 32 million people losing health insurance and has no chance of passing. But I suppose McConnell wants to send one last signal to Republican diehards that the party is committed to doing away with Obamacare, even if they’re unable to actually do it. What dies hardest of all are old habits.
Republicans have been felled by their cynicism, their lack of policy interest, and the impossibility of squaring their political messaging with the job of governing. But it’s the American people, of course, who will pay the larger price. A functioning legislative democracy that is able to tackle the challenges facing its citizens relies on political parties that are not only up to the task, but also have the requisite skills to legislative and govern the country. Right now America has only one such party.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.