As someone who has frequently criticized the national media’s coverage of Donald Trump and Republicans in general, I have to admit that their take on the Obamacare repeal debacle was spot on. Some headlines:
“Republicans fold after years of vowing Obamacare repeal” — The Atlantic.
“The biggest broken promise in political history” — Washington Examiner.
“Trump and Ryan lose big” — New York Times.
“Failure of the health care bill reveals a party unready to govern” — Vox Media.
That last one is my favorite, because it is so obviously true. The Republican Party, especially as constituted in the U.S. House of Representatives, is completely unready to govern.
The GOP effort to repeal and replace Obamacare was primarily thwarted by a group of 30 to 40 members of Congress who call themselves the “Freedom Caucus.” Their spiritual leader comes from the other chamber, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, the Republican gadfly from Kentucky who enjoys nothing more than appearing on cable television to pronounce himself a “true conservative.”
For sure, there were some moderate Republicans who also balked at the Trump-Ryan bill, but the Freedom Caucus outnumbered them and the legislation would have passed with Freedom Caucus support.
After House Speaker Paul Ryan and President Trump called off the Obamacare repeal roll call on Friday for lack of enough votes, Rand Paul and others of his ilk were reveling in their “victory.” That is how they think.
The Freedom Caucus never accomplishes anything other than to stop legislation from happening. It never has enough power or support to pass legislation into law. You can remove one section of rail from a thousand-mile train track and stop a train, but it takes a thousand miles of rail to make a train travel a thousand miles. The Freedom Caucus’ idea of victory is to remove one section of rail. They couldn’t build a thousand miles of track if their lives depended on it.
Was the GOP repeal plan perfect? Of course not, not for anyone. Rand Paul frequently labeled it “Obamacare-lite.” Here’s the thing — Obamacare-lite would still have been better than full-blown Obamacare. But that wasn’t true for the all-or-nothing — “nothing” being the ultimate result — Freedom Caucus.
The absolute worst part of Obamacare has always been the individual mandate, the requirement that all Americans must purchase health insurance, or face a stiff penalty enforced by none other than the Internal Revenue Service. It is the most un-American, unconstitutional mandate imposed in all of U.S. history. The GOP plan supported by Trump and Ryan would have done away with the individual mandate, and that alone made it worth supporting.
Trump and Ryan tried to placate the Freedom Caucus, which, for anyone paying attention in recent years, was hilarious because it was doomed from the start. The Freedom Caucus never takes yes for an answer. Multiple reports detailed how every time Trump and Ryan gave the Freedom Caucus something they wanted, the caucus came up with something else. The bar kept moving, which was predictable. The Freedom Caucus all along wanted to kill the bill, and then take credit for killing it.
But there’s a much bigger picture at play here, which is another reason the Freedom Caucus can’t see it. The Freedom Caucus couldn’t see the big picture if they were trapped in an IMAX theater. The Freedom Caucus always plays small ball.
The big picture here was the importance of a victory for President Trump in his first major piece of legislation. To accomplish that, it would have required Republicans of various stripes to bend, to be flexible, to put the good of the party and the president above themselves.
The Democrats did it in 2010 when they passed Obamacare in the first place. Republicans did it back in 1981 when they gave Ronald Reagan a first-year victory on his 1981 tax cuts, binding together with 40-some Democrats in a House actually controlled by the Democrats.
Here’s how the New York Times reported the 1981 tax cut victory:
“In a decisive victory for President Reagan, the House of Representatives today approved the Administration’s tax cut bill… The key vote, 238 to 195, gave Mr. Reagan a third upset victory over the Democratic House majority on fiscal issues.”
That’s the kind of story that created tremendous momentum and future victories for Reagan. That’s the kind of story Donald Trump needed. That’s the kind of New York Times story he could have had if not for his own party, which, unlike what Reagan faced in 1981, is actually in the majority in the House. Instead, he got this from the same newspaper, thanks to Republicans:
“House Republican leaders, facing a revolt among conservatives and moderates in their ranks, pulled legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act from consideration on the House floor Friday in a major defeat for President Trump on the first legislative showdown of his presidency… it was the biggest defeat of Mr. Trump’s young presidency, which has suffered many.”
It was crucial in the big scheme of things for Republicans to hand Donald Trump a victory on the legislation to repeal Obamacare, no matter how flawed individual Republicans thought it was. Failing to do so demonstrated clearly that, as the headline said, they are not ready to govern.
So here is what the “true conservatives” of the Freedom Caucus accomplished:
• They kept Obamacare as the law of the land, a strange victory for conservatives.
• They allowed the media to ridicule President Trump and the Republican Party for failing in their first big legislative test.
• In the earliest moments of the new presidency, they identified themselves as unreliable for all future initiatives supported by the Trump administration.
If they haven’t already, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer should send a giant cake and thank-you card to the Freedom Caucus. Thanks to the “conservative” Freedom Caucus, Obamacare lives.
Since the repeal catastrophe, President Trump has said he may have to start working more with the Democrats to pass major pieces of legislation. That is what he should do. The Republicans had their chance, and they blew it.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.