As fresh presidential Twitter storms erupt and Republicans remain hopelessly deadlocked on health care, one wonders whether the GOP will accomplish any of its policy agenda this year.
ABC News phrased it politely on Friday: “A day after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., delayed a vote on a bill to scrap much of Democrat Barack Obama’s health law, questions lingered about whether congressional Republicans could pass big, complicated pieces of legislation.”
What happened to the breathless promises of Obamacare repeal and the equally extolled tax reform?
Now that the former has bogged down, the latter may prove an impossible stretch.
“The whole idea is to do health care first because you gain an advantage there to go on and do tax reform,” said Senator Pat Roberts. “We’ve sort of bollixed that up, but I’m encouraged.”
If you listen to some media outlets, the GOP stalled on heath care because it never really had a plan, besides obstruction of Obama’s agenda.
This isn’t true, of course – right-of-center policy wonks have spent years crafting health care plans. There are many alternatives to Obamacare.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich has characterized Republicans’ health care woes as a result of poor messaging, and he has a point. Republicans certainly haven’t sold either of their Obamacare alternatives very well.
Trump will be able to steer the Republican health care message after “somebody translates it,” said Gingrich, and GOP lawmakers are struggling to effectively communicate the new bill because “nobody has served as a translator.”
So why can’t the GOP sell its own health care reform?
Besides the fact that the bills offered by the House and Senate vary from bad to worse only in degree, the GOP remains a fractured party that functions more like a coalition of liberal and conservative factions rather than a unified whole. There is little desire to waste political capital on a “solution” that ends up being equally distasteful to everyone for different reasons.
And it takes a lot of political capital to sell health care legislation – just ask the Democrats.
Immediately following their decision to force Obamacare through the legislative hatch, Democrats lost so many seats in the House and Senate that even the Washington Post conceded that 2010 was “a GOP wave election.”
Unlike the Democrats then, the Republicans now aren’t just proposing a solution – they’re also changing the parameters of an entitlement. Once a government-funded federal entitlement is in effect for long enough, people expect it and depend upon it and it becomes virtually impossible to remove.
In what now sounds prescient, Senator Ted Cruz said in the summer of 2013 that once Obamacare subsidies began on January 1, 2014, it would be too late to remove Obamacare.
“The Obama strategy, I believe, is that on January 1, subsidies kick in,” Cruz said. “And his strategy is very simple: He knows that in modern times no major entitlement has ever gone into effect and been unwound. Never been done. His strategy is to get as many Americans as possible hooked on the subsidies, addicted to the sugar.”
“I think if we’re going to stop Obamacare, we have to do it now,” Cruz continued. “If we get to January 1, this thing is here forever.”
The potential political hit from repealing or replacing the ACA could be even worse for Republicans than what the Democrats faced after they passed it.
A majority of Americans believe the Republican health care alternative will cost more for everyone except the rich. Fifty-one percent think Obamacare should not be repealed, but 45 percent think it should be, according to a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Currently, the Democrats own Obamacare and its failures. If Republicans replace Obamacare with a bill of their own that doesn’t transition to a truly free-market system and doesn’t significantly improve costs, all of the problems associated with the American health care apparatus become theirs. Why waste political capital on a “solution” they don’t believe in that will only create more problems?
But the GOP has also boxed themselves in. They promised a full repeal and a return to life before Obamacare. President Trump has also proclaimed that no one will lose coverage and that costs presumably will go down.
Republicans can’t just repeal Obamacare and move on to tax reform or other policy issues because it costs a lot of political capital to sell a solution and they aren’t united around any one policy. This, coupled with their lack of political backbone, means they’ll likely continue to crumble against the impenetrable mountain of bureaucratic and legislative inertia.