When Americans think of public policy in terms of scoring wins or losses, dumpster fires like the last two Obamacare repeal efforts are inevitable.
Once again, a Republican effort to repeal (or replace, or modify, or mangle) the Affordable Care Act has failed. The proposed bill by senators Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy, rushed along in order to take advantage of a procedural loophole that would allow passage by a simple majority, couldn’t even muster the necessary 50 votes (plus a tie breaker from Vice President Pence) to squeak it through the chamber.
Liberal commentators in particular crowed that this second ACA train wreck was a classic failure of expertise. Republicans and their staffs failed to put Graham-Cassidy through its paces, hold hearings, listen to testimony, and in general do the things that are part of “regular order” in the Senate. “Republicans,” wrote MSNBC’s Steve Benen, had “no idea what they’re voting on.”
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There’s a lot of truth in this, but the reality here is that expertise wouldn’t have mattered. GOP legislators know that their base isn’t interested in the mumbo-jumbo of actual health care experts. These voters are not interested in analysis, or extended debate. They don’t care who’s in favor of it or who’s against it, or for what reason. They’ve been told that Obamacare — which they hate — would be repealed, and the Affordable Care Act — which they like — would be improved.
If that sounds strange, remember that a third of all voters and about a quarter of GOP voters don’t realize these are different things, and that’s the rub. No amount of expert testimony is going to change anyone’s mind about Obamacare. What the most vocal and angry part of the Republican base wants is a repeal of this thing called “Obamacare” because it is a political symbol and because President Trump promised them it would be repealed, totally and completely, on day one of his administration. What that would mean is as much a mystery to those angry voters as it is to many of the senators who supported that repeal.
I am not a health care expert. I am a conservative (and former GOP Senate staffer) who in general objected to the establishment of a new massive new entitlement in 2010 with a series of legislative and regulatory contraptions muscled through by then-Majority Leader Harry Reid. I was appalled by Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s admission that Congress would have to pass the bill in order to figure it out. And I was disgusted by health care consultant Jonathan Gruber later admitting that much of the debate around the ACA was a charade premised on the stupidity of the average voter.
The Affordable Care Act needs fixing. (Even a non-expert can see that.) And yet Graham-Cassidy has proven Gruber and the other experts right: there is a vocal minority of the voting public that really has no interest in finding out what’s in some of the most important bills facing Congress at any given time. What they want, instead, is a victory over the other side in every legislative battle. Voters who didn’t understand the ACA in the first place now demand “repeal” without knowing what that means, either.
The resulting mess is not because legislators are insular, but because they are in fact reflecting the incoherent wishes of their constituents. In such an environment, experts aren’t much help — not because these specialists and professionals don’t know what they’re doing, but because the public only wants to hear answers from them with which they already agree. Forget about nuance or competence: As scholar Philip Tetlock once noted, there’s not much point in checking the track record of competing experts when the public approaches expert advice with “the psychology of the sports arena, not the seminar room.”
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Experts can only assist policymaking when the voters know what they want, and when the public and their elected representatives are willing to listen to the various possibilities about how to get the results they desire. When Americans think instead, as so many do now, of public policy only in terms of scoring wins or losses, legislative dumpster fires like the last two ACA repeal efforts are inevitable.
Ironically, these failures in the Senate will lead at least some Americans to say that Washington “isn’t listening” to the electorate. The problem, in reality, is that Washington is listening far too much to a vocal minority who have no idea what they’re talking about and do not want to learn more than the little they know. Republicans were not bereft of expert advice in this or any other legislative fight. But there’s not much use for that advice when voters have already told them that facts are less important than unfocused rage and a thirst for promises of political revenge.
Tom Nichols, a Russia specialist and professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College, is the author of The Death of Expertise. The views expressed here are solely his own. Follow him on Twitter: @RadioFreeTom.
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