What’s all this empty nonsense about the Tea Party being dead? Actually, I’ve weighed calling in the mortician several times myself, given how indifferent Donald Trump is towards the size of the federal government and how determined he is to repeal sequestration budget caps, the Tea Party’s sole policy accomplishment. Maybe “dead” is too strong a word, but surely on life support with its vitals growing ever weaker.
Well, no more. The destruction of the noxious American Health Care Act (AHCA) was from start to finish a production of Tea Party legislators in the House Freedom Caucus and the Senate. Even better, they pulled it off while placing themselves solely in the mainstream of American politics. Have we yet located a single homo sapien outside Congress and the insurance companies who ardently supports the AHCA? Grassroots conservatives are against it so strongly that Donald Trump’s approval rating has taken a beating among his base. The Heritage Foundation is opposed, as is the Club for Growth. Cross the aisle and Democrats have linked arms—hypocrites, every one, given how stridently they derided rigid Republican opposition to Obamacare, but worth noting. The public disapproves 56 percent to 17 percent, a gobsmacking margin typically reserved for Robert Mugabe and avian flu.
Sneer all you like about how “far right” and “archconservative” the Freedom Caucus is, but for a glorious fleeting moment, they were all of us. Their analysis, that the AHCA would do little to drive down premiums and much to strand Medicaid holders without affordable alternatives, was shared by the soberest health analysts. This was bad policy, cooked up by an off-its-game GOP that seemed genuinely shocked that it was now expected to deliver on those hundreds of millions of Obamacare repeals it passed in the off-season. The Freedom Caucus has long understood that killing Frankenstein laws is just as important, if not more so, as passing good ones. Right now, who among us would disagree?
This is exactly what we elected the Tea Party to do. Though easily forgotten, the protests of 2009 and 2010 weren’t solely or even chiefly directed at Barack Obama. Their more immediate goal was to replace a Republican establishment that had given them two presidential terms of comprehensive policy failure, interminable wars and big-government lab experiments. Maybe they didn’t succeed at that, but they did elect a congressional bloc formidable enough to make the difference.
And their greater critique has been vindicated, has it not? The Tea Party line has always been that elite Republicans would rather spend than cut, posture than fight, apply concealer to the bureaucracy rather than roll it back. The milquetoast and cosmetic AHCA proved them entirely correct.
So now the political fallout is landing. Donald Trump, in keeping with his skepticism of all things East Asian, has let it be known that Paul Ryan doesn’t have to commit seppuku, but he has to be furious. The speaker foisted on him a bill he didn’t understand and promised him votes that never materialized. Ryan, meanwhile, will scarcely sleep tonight, having fouled up not only his first major reform package as speaker but an issue that’s long been cardinal for him. His best hope will be to rack up a couple wins—say, tax reform and regulatory reform—that realign him with Trump and reestablish his competence, while gradually persuading Trump that Obamacare repeal can be done again, and properly this time.
Pay much attention to the man behind the curtain. Right on cue Friday morning, Steve Bannon let it be known to Gabriel Sherman that the AHCA “doesn’t drive down costs” and was “written by the insurance industry.” Bannon, who views Ryan’s altruistic wonkishness as an interfamily rival to his populist nationalism, now has his hated enemy exactly where he wants him, chained to a sinking and deeply unpopular tome of legislation that he’s detached himself from. The GOP is less a political party than a coalition government, and right now its factions are brandishing their knives. The likely winners? Bannon and—kudos!—the Freedom Caucus.