Eight years after they organized en masse to kill Obamacare before it became law and helped Republicans take over Congress in the process, conservative activists are having trouble galvanizing around the GOP’s best and perhaps last chance to do away with the health care act.
Activists on the right have been outmatched in energy and enthusiasm by liberal groups at a critical legislative juncture. And the mounting worry among both the conservative groups and Republican lawmakers is that the debate over the future of health care in America may soon be irreparably painted in unfavorable terms, if it hasn’t been already.
“I certainly think, at the present, the most visible activism is happening within the left,” said Noah Wall, grassroots director for the conservative group FreedomWorks. “It is very simple. The left has a simple position, a clearly defined position, that they don’t want to make any changes or as few as possible to President Obama’s health care legacy. Our position is a lot more nuanced.”
That nuance has already manifested itself on Capitol Hill. Senate Republicans have stalled in their attempts to pass a health care overhaul and have been loath to hold public meetings to discuss the matter. Those who have were deluged with protests over their party’s legislation.
Obamacare’s popularity has risen steadily as the attempt to upend it has progressed. And on Monday, the White House conceded it was being outmatched by liberal activism, with Marc Short, the director of legislative affairs, telling reporters, “The left, I think, has been more organized in their messaging on this than collectively Republicans have.”
A Major Turnaround
As political developments go, it is a dramatic reversal—the very forces that made Obamacare so politically toxic unable to muster more enthusiasm for the final push. But operatives and GOP aides say there are obvious explanations.
The primary one is that it’s far easier to oppose legislation than to support it. “It’s the reverse of what happened in 2009,” said one high-ranking GOP operative. “Literally, the reverse.”
Elected Republicans have been grappling with the same issue. When the House’s repeal bill initially failed to reach the floor for a vote, Speaker Paul Ryan argued that his party was unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the burdens of governance. It “had been a 10-year opposition party,” he explained, “where being against things was easy to do.”
Ryan was eventually able to narrowly pass a bill out of his chamber. But the Senate has since endured a rocky road of its own, with lawmakers who’d previously supported Obamacare repeal-and-replace efforts (with full knowledge that it would never be signed into law) now balking at similar legislation.
Considering this context, one top House GOP aide said, it made sense for outside groups to feel disengaged. “They rightfully said, ‘We’ve done our job and now it’s up to you guys to pull it off,’” the aide explained. “It is an expectations thing. We have to do this and it’s on us now. And if we don’t do it, we are going to get killed [by them.]”
But others argue that the enthusiasm gap is owed, in part, to the party’s own failures.
GOP leadership wrote their bills in secret—a strategic decision designed to shield the legislation from critics but one that left conservatives out of the loop. And when the end product was revealed, it often left the base feeling apathetic.
Although the Senate legislation would dramatically scale back Medicaid—facilitating, in part, the loss of 22 million people’s health care coverage—and seriously weaken consumer protections and market regulations, conservatives in that chamber bemoaned how much of the law was left in place.
“Why aren’t outside groups on the right promoting the Senate version of repeal?” Doug Stafford, a chief strategist for Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), a critic of the bill, told The Daily Beast. “If so it’s because they don’t like it. For reasons Rand and others have articulated, it isn't real repeal. It accepts the basic tenets of Obamacare and largely tinkers with them or rebrands them. It has too many regulations, mandates, and subsidies. It’s a bailout for a failed system and for insurance companies.”
The White House hasn’t helped matters. President Donald Trump has held few events on health care reform and tweeted only sporadically about the topic amid his fights against “fake news,” cable hosts, and an ongoing investigation into ties between his campaign officials and the Russian government in 2016. He has occasionally offered his support for congressional legislation but also trashed the House bill as “mean.”
“Those outside groups have not been engaged!” former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele emailed The Daily Beast. “When the battle shifted from stopping Obamacare to passage of whatever Republican plan was on the table, there was little interest in having outside groups out front on message or grassroots organizing; particularly given that public support for the Republican plan was less than enthusiastic. Why would those groups tout a bill even the leadership was afraid to talk about in public?”
Whatever the cause, the absence of conservative, outside-group pressure has created a vacuum that progressive activists have filled. Over the last few months, these groups staged nationwide protests against proposed legislation, putting moderate and even conservative Republican lawmakers on the defensive.
“I think seven years ago, Republicans were able to turn political advantage out of Obamacare by demagogue against the policy,” Joe Dinkin, the communications director for the Working Families Party, told The Daily Beast. “There is always room to generate fear about a policy that might change such a big section of the economy and as crucial a pillar of people's feelings of security as health care.”
Progressive Action Having an Impact
Last week, WFP partnered with Our Revolution, the political organization spawned from Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) campaign and other progressive groups to organize sit-ins at state offices of GOP senators. Collectively, 1,000 activists participated in some 36 events in nearly two dozen states, making national headlines and personalizing the message about the costs of the repeal legislation.
Polling suggests that their efforts are having an impact. The Senate bill, introduced before the July 4 recess, was supported by less than 20 percent of the public in some surveys.
James Davis, a top official at the Koch-backed Freedom Partners, said it would be a mistake to conclude from such numbers that there was no conservative verve for Obamacare’s repeal and replacement. The difficulties in trying to reform a massive, complex piece of legislation made grassroots organizing more complicated, he conceded. But that didn’t mean conservative pressure on lawmakers to act was any less intense.
“I think that passion is still there,” he said. “They are looking and waiting on the Republican Congress to get there. We would have loved and are disappointed there hasn’t been more progress to fix the problems with health care than there has been right now. But it was a massive bill that was put in place, and ultimately it takes a heavy lift to move massive legislation.”
Freedom Partners and others may get their chance to help with that heavy lift soon. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is reportedly planning to have a new bill written by the end of the week.