There’s failure in politics all the time. Parties, governing or opposing, don’t get all they want, sometimes spectacularly. But what we don’t see everyday is a political failure on the scale of today’s Trumpcare defeat.
What went wrong? Here’s a pretty good analysis. Here’s a good account of what Ryan did wrong. Here’s a good explanation of the GOP’s rather complex game plan.
Now, progressive opposition helped: GOP town halls and phone lines were filled with angry constituents, and that made a lot of reps worried about taking people’s health insurance away. But fundamentally, this was an own goal. They had the Presidency and both houses of Congress. The first stage of the process involved nothing but Republicans, and they had a 20-vote margin. And they couldn’t do it. They couldn’t write a bill and pass it.
Why? Many reasons, but one way of looking at it is this: the GOP, for a generation, has more and more defined itself as the party that is against politics. Starting with Newt Gingrich and his pals, they have systematically dismantled bipartisanship, Senatorial norms, earmarks, negotiation, half-a-loaf deals. They have consistently demonized the Democrats, and their own members who compromised with them. When Obama was elected, they quickly settled into being the Party of No. The centrist health care compromise worked out by GOP think tanks and implemented by a GOP governor had to be repudiated and treated as unbearable tyranny just out of spite that they hadn’t won.
It’s normal for presidential candidates to run against Washington– though Democrats have to at least promise to do things for people. Trump took this trope to new heights of exaggeration and mendacity: much of his appeal was as the magic outsider who would “drain the swamp” and get things done— unlike, you know, politics, which was Always Bad.
And the act worked! That is, it worked to get Republicans elected. After the disaster of Bush, Republicans clawed their way back to control Congress and the Presidency. Now they could do anything they wanted!
And why couldn’t they? Because after years of demonizing Politics, they’d forgotten how to do it. Politics is never pretty, but politics is making government work for you. Naturally, the GOP should have GOP politics: making government do GOP things. They’ve just shown that they don’t know how to do that.
Everybody deserves some blame, but we can point out the chief culprits:
- Paul Ryan, who tried to manage the whole fiasco at a breathtaking clip. He failed because he refused to do politics: letting Congresspeople work on the bill, building consensus, bringing interest groups on board, working out a deal with everyone in his party.
- Trump, who abandoned his own promises, didn’t know enough about the bill to argue for it, lost interest in the process after three weeks, and couldn’t think of any negotiating tactics besides vague threats and a big ultimatum. For two years he’s gotten away with being a know-nothing who knows how to get into the papers; the fact that he hates politics and doesn’t know how to do it has finally become a huge liability.
- The Freedom Caucus, which got almost all of what it wanted and, out of their own form of spite, still refused to go along and thus got none of what it wanted. Ironically, their intransigence kept the GOP from jumping off a cliff, but let’s not make them into heroes here. They wanted the bill to be far nastier, which means they too are not interested in actual politics, only in grandstanding and personal purity.
- Some 180 to 190 Republican representatives who were still willing to go along with a crappy bill with 17% public support. That’s 180 people who could have said “This is a terrible idea, let’s slow down.” and didn’t.
- Any number of pundits, radio blowhards, and minor pols who went along with the Repeal Obamacare line for years and never foresaw any of this. And made any reconsideration or repair unthinkable within the conservative bubble.
If they had passed the bill today, we’d probably be having the same discussion a week from now: the House bill would have flopped unceremoniously in the Senate. But McConnell has the reputation for being canny, at least. He was planning on a quick and decisive vote. Since he knows perfectly well that Senators don’t work like that, he likely expected that it was better to fail big and fast, so as to move on to other things.
Have they learned anything? Almost certainly not. The next big topic will undoubtedly be a huge tax cut for the rich. And that would be easy-peasy if the GOP adopted a very simple idea: let the tax cuts expire in ten years, so they can use reconciliation rules in the Senate. (This is what Bush did, and it’s why his tax cuts did expire.) That would be a great victory for the GOP! But they will be obsessed with making the tax cuts permanent, which means making them revenue-neutral, so they’ll be adding in program cuts and maybe new taxes (they’re excited about a new “border adjustment tax” that could raise a trillion dollars). And that means a bunch of additional and unnecessary fights. Oh, and we have a brain-dead custom of requiring separate bills to spend money and to raise the debt ceiling, and the debt ceiling deadline is coming up, another opportunity for a big intra-party fight.
In short: a policy of opposing all governing really does come and bite you in the ass when you’re the ones governing. Trump already trotted out a line about blaming Democrats for the failure of the health care bill, which surely fools no one at this point. When the Republicans can’t pass their own bill, why would any Democrat help them? But this dodge, which worked so well when the Democrats had the White House, sounds silly today and will sound even sillier as the midterms approach.
Some of my Twitter friends have joined the Democratic Socialists. I’m kind of pleased to note that on at least one issue, I’m more radical than they are: I think the CEO system for running corporations is a dangerous anachronism. And this whole debacle shows why. Trump is the personification of the bad CEO, one who can’t build or run an honest business. His one skill is marketing one word, his own name. He’s canny or unscrupulous enough to let other people slap that name on things, often crappy or scammy things, and still make money for himself. But he’s fundamentally lazy and has no idea how to get things done except by yelling at people. We saw today that this doesn’t work in government. Someday we’ll see that it’s poor practice in business too.