Back in January, I wrote that this Congress figuring out healthcare reform was like me trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube: “Every conceivable scheme or solution creates new problems. None of them solve the problem because this problem is simply too complicated to ‘solve.’”
It turns out that wasn’t just a metaphor for the policy—it was also a metaphor for the politics. Every concession given to the Freedom Caucus cost them some moderate votes. On Friday, when it was announced that Virginia Congresswoman Barbara Comstock was a “No” vote, several observers declared the bill DOA. This was a matter of political survival for Rep. Comstock. No matter the merits or the nuance she might employ, how could she have a chance to win re-election to her Northern Virginia district of D.C burbs facing TV ads saying she voted for a bill that strips “Essential Benefits.”
This is why it was smart for Republicans to pull the bill altogether. Sure, forcing a vote would have made recalcitrant Republicans sweat and made it easier to seek retribution on people who cast votes defying their party’s president but it would have put a lot of people in a tough spot. It would have resulted in some people being attacked for “not voting to repeal Obamacare,” and others for “voting to end things like mammograms.” It was a lose-lose for Republicans.
Still, this was a disaster, one that brought to mind a quote frequently attributed to Margaret Thatcher, that “First you win the argument, then you win the vote.” To be sure, Republicans won the argument over repealing Obamacare, but they never actually sold their vision for what would replace it. Part of the reason for this is that they didn’t have a coherent vision. As I documented in my book Too Dumb to Fail, Republicans are in the midst of a decade-long identity crisis. Donald Trump’s unlikely Presidential victory might have delivered them many things (including a Supreme Court nominee), but it also postponed what might have been a resolution. Is this the party of Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio—or the party of Ted Cruz and the Freedom Caucus? We still don’t know. There is no clear winner or mandate.
Republicans were united against Obamacare, but never united for its replacement. And in trying to cobble together a replacement, they used all the same gimmicks that Democrats used to pass iit in the first place (failing to get bipartisan support, buying off blocs of voters, using budget reconciliation, etc.).
We never had the national conversation that goes like this: Government can either be responsible for your healthcare, and you’ll get higher premiums and bad care—or we can make this a more market-oriented process, but there will be certain negative tradeoffs associated with that, as well.
They never had that argument, let alone won that argument, and thus they lost the chance to vote since the vote would have been lost.
The problem with this bill was the bill, not the sales job. Simply put, it was a stinker. Like catcher and philosopher Yogi Berra said, “If people don’t want to come out to the ball park, nobody’s gonna stop ‘em.” If nobody wants to vote for a bill, the same is true.
Of course, we can’t get away from this discussion without assigning blame, and many will blame the Freedom Caucus and Speaker Paul Ryan. But the buck ultimately should stop (though it remains to be seen if it will stop) with the president. Everybody talks about Donald Trump as a deal-maker, but it occurs to me that most of the deals he did were with people who had an incentive to make one. In the case of the Freedom Caucus, he’s dealing with people who have an incentive to not make one. Politics is different from other jobs.
I’m reminded of a quote that comes from Harry Truman. In reference to then-General Dwight Eisenhower (who had been elected president), he predicted: “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.” Ike ended up doing pretty well, but the point is well taken. Cajoling Congressman is like herding cats. Poor Donald.