Watching the continuing struggle of congressional Republicans to enact a health care bill that is increasingly unpopular with the public led me to wonder aloud at New York about their motivations:
One of the much-predicted things in politics that has not actually happened this year (so far, at least) is the defection of congressional Democrats from districts or places carried by Donald Trump. There are 12 Democratic House members who fit that description, and all of them, obviously, will face voters in 2018. And there are famously ten Democratic senators up for reelection next year who represent states carried by Trump.
While some of those senators supported Trump on Cabinet confirmations more than their blue-state counterparts (particularly when the result was not in doubt), on big votes there was more unity. Only four Democrats failed to join the filibuster against Neil Gorsuch, even though everyone knew that would trigger the “nuclear option” which would eliminate judicial filibusters, maybe forever. A smattering of House Democrats voted for resolutions repealing late Obama regulations — mostly on guns and abortion — but such actions were rare in the Senate (except for one regulation involving coal, which attracted four coal-state Democrats).
But on the big measures that are preventing all the other GOP-sponsored big measures to proceed, Democrats are holding fast. The fiscal year 2017 budget resolution that made this year’s Obamacare repeal-and-replace legislation possible passed both Houses without any Democratic votes. No House Democrats voted for the American Health Care Act. No Senate Democrats have breathed a word suggesting they might support the Better Care Reconciliation Act, however it is amended.
For those whose memories only date back to the enactment of the Affordable Care Act, this opposition-party unanimity might seem normal. But it is actually very unusual by historic standards. Last time Republicans had control of the White House and Congress, during the George W. Bush administration, a significant number of Democrats regularly crossed the aisle to support GOP priorities, from No Child Left Behind to the Medicare prescription-drug benefit to comprehensive immigration reform — not to mention the authorizations and appropriations for military action in Afghanistan and Iraq.
What’s the difference now? In part, it could be the simple result of polarization and the example set by congressional Republicans when Barack Obama was president. And in part, some credit for Democratic unity is owed to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, not to mention the millions of progressive activists who have urged Democrats to hold the line against Trump and the GOP.
But there’s something else going on as well. During the W. years, Republican initiatives were built around Karl Rove’s swing-voter strategy for building a permanent GOP majority. Most Bush domestic initiatives were aimed at converting a segment of Democratic-leaning voters, from the seniors who were the targets of the Medicare prescription-benefit legislation to the Latinos favoring immigration reform. And the swing-voter strategy was enfolded in a more systemic (and successful) effort to mobilize Republican voters — especially conservative Evangelicals.
What’s remarkable about the very similar House and Senate health-care bills that Republicans are struggling to get to Donald Trump’s desk is that they don’t seem to be based on any particular strategy, beyond checking off the box of “repealing Obamacare,” which many conservatives don’t even believe the legislation will do. Indeed, these bills have virtually no curb appeal for swing voters, and also heavily and overtly wreak havoc on the lives of the very swing voters — particularly white working-class voters — that elected Trump and have been trending Republican for years. Here’s how Ron Brownstein puts it:
“Drafted without any Democratic input, the House and Senate legislation presents an unusually explicit statement of priorities. Tax cuts emerge clearly atop that list: The Congressional Budget Office calculates that through 2026 the House bill reduces federal revenues by an annual average of $100 billion, and the Senate bill by an average of $70 billion. In each chamber, the biggest cut is the repeal of ACA taxes on income and investment profits that apply only to individuals earning at least $200,000 or families earning at least $250,000 …
“On the other side, the cuts’ corresponding benefit reductions would hit lower-income and older workers hardest, particularly in the last years before retirement. Those are cornerstone Republican voters: Nationwide, over two-thirds of all adults ages 45 to 64 are white and Trump dominated among them.
So these bills manage to offend a sizable majority of the electorate at a time when Republicans ought to be thinking about defending their congressional majorities in 2018 and helping Trump consolidate his support for 2020.”
There’s no pressure on Democrats to cross lines and help get these bills enacted because they make no sense politically — not even for Republicans, much less for Democrats.