You heard it in campaigns for seven years: “Repeal and Replace Obamacare.” Then President Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans spent six months in the role of Dog-Who-Caught-the-Car, unable to pass replacement legislation or even repeal the original law.
That’s probably the best thing that could have happened for the GOP at this point.
It remains an embarrassment to the Republican Party that, entrusted with control of the Presidency and majorities in both houses of Congress could not pass a piece of legislation they had been promising since President Barack Obama signed the so-called Affordable Care Act. Yet if the GOP was so unprepared to advance a policy proposal of their own, how would the aftermath of such passage have looked?
If the last half-year is any indication, it would have gotten real ugly real quick.
Having labored for the better part of a decade on the Orwellian task of extolling Obamacare’s success, Democrats demonstrated their allegiance to the beleaguered law by promising dire consequences to any Republican alternative. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — significantly, past and likely future Presidential hopefuls from the left wing of the Democratic party — brazenly likened opposition to Obamacare to murder.
Would such gutter rhetoric would stop with President Trump’s signature on an ACA repeal or replacement bill?
Of course not.
Assuming no health care bill would permanently end every instance of the biological event of death, the Democrats would begin collecting martyrs almost immediately. Any person who passed away due to sickness or disease would become an example of the failure of Republicans’ health care scheme. Every flat-lining heart monitor would lead to one more bloody shirt to wave on the 2018 or 2020 campaign trail. Vulnerable Republican Senators up for re-election would spend next spring and summer figuring out how to avoid stepping over protesters getting $15 per hour to feign death outside of campaign rallies. The 2020 Democratic Presidential primary debates would devolve into competitions to see which candidate could burn President Trump with the most viral serial killer reference.
And Democrats, for all their perceived faults at the ballot box, have campaigned in favor of the ACA since the ink dried on President Obama’s signature. They even passed out bumper stickers: One riffed on the Tea Party with an adapted Gadsden flag symbol; another bragged the ACA was “Signed. Sealed. Delivering.” The DNC faced inside-the-beltway ridicule when they pushed out annual talking points for activists who wanted to bring up health care at holiday dinners. Even if no minds got changed over turkey and stuffing, the activists who were paying attention got a refresher course on why they could be proud of the party’s legislative victory.
In short, Democrats never took public support (or opposition) for granted.
For their part, Republicans enjoyed their own political success thanks to the ACA, so one would imagine they would understand the vulnerability that comes with passing controversial laws. After watching Democrats launch into resist-at-all-costs mode, it’s no mystery what tone the post-repeal rhetoric would take.
Yet look at how the health care debate unfolded. Republicans had good reason to oppose the ACA, but their talking points failed to outline a broader strategy for health care reform.
More glaringly, and more important for the next legislative fight, Republicans failed to ask a critical question when considering their actions at all stages: “What happens next?”
They apparently never considered that after campaigning to win elections, they would have to campaign again to support the policies they were ostensibly elected to put in place.
This must become a critical consideration for policymakers. Since no party has a clear monopoly on the electorate, both sides have every reason to make as much noise as possible when out of power. (A shift in control could be just one “wave election away, after all.) Elected leaders can’t ride the momentum of a November mandate to enact policy. Election campaigns have to be followed by legislative issue campaigns, which in terms must be followed by public relations campaigns to promote the just-passed policy.
The real shame of the GOP health care failure is that the current head of the party, President Trump, counts bragging about his accomplishments as a major strength. Had Congressional Republicans been ready to advance even more modest health care policy reforms to gradually build a path to full repeal, the President could have served as an effective cheerleader in chief. Instead they looked to him to provide policy guidance the way previous Presidents have. That’s not a promising recipe for success during the Trump administration.
While Republicans may be hanging their heads in defeat now, this failure offers a good lesson for other legislative initiatives, such as rumored pushes for tax reform or infrastructure investment. And without the failures of the health care system around their own neck, they have plenty of time to regroup — and score some legislative wins before voters head to the polls in 2018.
Political movements have no finish line. Winning or losing an election — or even a legislative vote — doesn’t count like it used to.