It’s easy these days to disparage President Donald Trump’s instincts—how, after all, could he get rid of The Mooch, easily the best character on his reality TV show? But there is one thing the president was right about from the start: The Republican Party probably should have left Obamacare repeal well enough alone. At least, that is, until the party had gotten its act together.
When the president decided to go against his instincts and support Obamacare repeal, he was thinking undoubtedly what pretty much everyone who didn’t live and work in Washington, D.C., thought: that members of Congress did have their act together. That those who voted over and over again to repeal Obamacare in meaningless “show votes” would actually repeal it when they had their first real chance. That a party vowing to swiftly enact a plan to replace Obamacare once in full control of Congress would have an actual replacement plan in mind. That when an ailing Senator John McCain was flown in to cast a decisive vote on the bill, the decision would have worked in Republicans’ favor instead of leaving them at the receiving end of a bracing censure. Or that when Senator Lisa Murkowski voted in favor of allowing debate on Obamacare repeal and replacement, she wouldn’t then vote “no” on every method to accomplish it. Who is running strategy now? Jamie Lannister.
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And yet, ironically, the GOP’s complete, even historic, ineptitude has managed to work in the party’s favor—as the president might say—“big-league.” Quite unbelievably, the party has an opportunity to emerge in a better position from this mess. Of course, it’s hard to argue that a GOP-led Congress, currently with an approval rating even lower than that of O.J. “I’ve lived a conflict-free life” Simpson, can do much worse.
First, let’s give the president his due: From the earliest days of the administration, perhaps sensing Washington’s love affair with inertia, Trump called for letting Obamacare “fail” on its own. One might strongly disagree with various methods that might lead to this “failure”—such as refusing to shore up wobbling health care markets—but his point, from a political perspective at least, was valid. If the federal government is to enact something as sweeping and controversial as a total rewrite of America’s health care policy, a sense of national crisis is essential. Over the last few months, the “crisis” mentality worked against the Republicans—because Americans were persuaded that the “crisis” was Republicans trying to take away something they’ve been given (such as one of Obamacare’s most popular provisions—protection for free existing conditions.). Voters tend not to like losing things they think they’ve gained. This explains in part why Obamacare, which has dragged the Democratic Party down through multiple election cycles, is suddenly more popular than ever.
Yet it is astonishing how determined Republicans seem to have been to replicate the very process that led to Obamacare’s enactment in the first place. For the past several election cycles, the consistent GOP complaint, after all, was that the villainous Obamacare was a rushed law, cobbled together in secret and passed without a single vote from the other party. If anything, this year’s Republican effort was more rushed, more secret and far less popular. According to one Congressional historian, Trumpcare, as the House plan was called, was the most unpopular bill contemplated by Congress in at least three decades (and there were some doozies over that period, let me remind you.)
Indeed, the Republicans missed the most important lesson of Obamacare: Because the law passed without a single Republican vote in the House or Senate, all of Obamacare’s miscues or early, inevitable missteps fell on one party. And one party alone. At least one study, and there are others, found that those Democrats who voted for Obamacare’s passage lost an average of about 6 points in polls, costing Democrats 66 House seats in 2010 alone.
Had Congress actually passed an Obamacare replacement law, with a bare majority of votes, loved by nearly no one, endlessly assailed by the press corps, its consequences would be the GOP’s to bear. And unless the health care of Americans vastly improved, premiums magically went down, and editorial writers across the country suddenly proclaimed they were wrong and that TrumpCare was the elixir we all needed after all, the GOP would pay an ugly price. When Obamacare was passed, Republicans warned about “death panels” determining whether patients lived or died. If Trumpcare had passed, the death panels could have been applied to their own political future. Escaping that fate by the thinnest of margins—the GOP now has an opportunity to turn things around. How would they do this? Through an approach that has become increasingly un-Washington-like in recent years: focusing on things that people actually want and, here’s the real surprise, giving it to them.
So what does the GOP do now?
First, the GOP Congress can show Americans that it knows how to run a railroad, so to speak, by actually fixing railroads. And bridges. And highways. Oh, and the tax code. You know, things that are popular, needed, and just might get at least a handful of the Democrats to pick up a phone call from the White House every once in a while.
Second, if elected Republicans truly want to enact a massive rewrite of the health-care system (and let’s be honest, many don’t), then they need to wait for a new health-care crisis to develop. This will come. And soon. America’s health-care system, as it is currently structured, is unsustainable. Premiums will continue to rise. Insurers will continue to shut down operations in various locales. There will continue to be complaints and horror stories from governors and mayors about the toll being taken on their communities. Only when there is a mass consensus that something sweeping needs to be done to fix the system will Congress find the fortitude to act. And at that point, you might at least get help from a Democrat or two. If Obamacare taught anyone in Washington anything—a city allergic to lessons—bipartisan buy-in, no matter how minimal, is crucial.
Until then, Obamacare is more secure than ever. That, ironically, may turn out to be the biggest legacy of the largest Republican Congressional majority in nearly 90 years. If they don’t start getting something meaningful accomplished soon, it may be their only legacy.