The Briefing, Vol. V, Issue 27

Happy Independence Day to all our readers. 

This week:

  • A second setback on Obamacare repeal
  • Can the GOP recover….again?
  • Today’s backlash to health bill doesn’t matter — next year’s reaction will matter.

Congress

Obamacare repeal: Republicans beat something of a disorderly retreat from Washington as the Fourth of July recess approached. The anticipated Senate vote on health care reform was delayed at the last minute, as conservative and moderate Republicans continued to battle for the inclusion or exclusion of various provisions. And within the party, there seems to be little agreement about the bill itself, or even about whether there’s been progress in negotiating a bill that can pass or which will be satisfactory to anyone.

The Republicans are in a difficult spot here. They need only 50 senators to go along (Vice President Mike Pence is certain to vote for anything that gets that many if need be), but they face the unenviable prospect of either paying now for going too far, or paying later for not going far enough.

Because the election is later (16 months away, to be precise), the former seems the wiser course. But not everyone can accept that idea. Politicians worry about the raucous town halls they are likely to encounter this week. They are not known to think long-term.

To illustrate the problem, let’s turn to an instructive example from recent history. One to one of the most successful Republican politicians holding office today is Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. He has won three statewide elections (including a recall election), helped create a majority conservative state Supreme Court, and his state party turned Wisconsin Red in the 2016 presidential election. In short, he has turned a losing state party into a winner, and he is even enjoying an even approval rating and probably favored to win re-election to a third term, at least for the moment.

But Walker was very far from such a result in 2011, the year after he was first elected. His name was mud. After the passage of the highly controversial Act 10, limiting unions’ collective bargaining, Walker writes in his own book that he would have lost his recall election had it been held anywhere in that time period. “If the law had allowed me to be recalled in 2011 instead of 2012,” he writes, “I would almost certainly have lost.”

So, what changed between 2011 and 2012? Well, it turns out the law actually worked. Simple as that — it got results. Yes, it was politically risky, but it saved so much money for local school districts and other government entities that it became popular, and not just among the conservatives who loved the idea from the beginning. It was allowing those districts to fix their budgets without cutting actual educational services. Despite the tens of thousands of protestors who had descended upon the capitol building in Madison in order to fight it, Act 10 became a feather in Walker’s cap, to the point that his 2014 re-election opponent didn’t even campaign against it.

What’s the lesson here? Quite simply Republicans would be foolish to settle for an Obamacare repeal bill that they don’t believe will bring down premiums or deductibles, or which won’t in some other way stem the exodus of insurers from the individual insurance market or improve the life of the average insurance consumer.

That’s the real bottom line. If Republicans pass a bill that is too timid and fails to improve the status quo, then the Democrat’s current and hysterical claims that they are voting to kill up to 30,000 people per year will tick. If, on the other hand, they pass something that creates noteworthy and positive change for insurance customers, the bill won’t be a negative for them at all. It could even become something they boast about on the campaign trail next year.

The way compromise usually works in Washington is that you end up with something watered down in order to avoid the most pointed criticism. But the criticism lives or dies with the substance of what passes.

Results matter. Believe it or not, Nancy Pelosi had a point when she asserted amid the explosive Obamacare debate that “we need to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.” It didn’t turn out as she’d hoped, of course. But the idea is that, when making laws, legislators need to think not of the immediate reaction they’re going to get, but the reaction they’ll get in the medium-term, as people begin to live under whatever passes.

The lesson here, and from Wisconsin, is that it’s worth taking a short-term hit politically if you can pass something that will become a success later on. And although there’s nothing wrong with compromise, it’s always a bad idea to water down your reform ideas in a way that will make them ineffective. If you do that, then you suffer the immediate backlash you were going to get either way; you fail to solve the problem at hand; and finally, that initial backlash proves enduring as voters discover you’ve done nothing to solve their day-to-day problems, or even made them worse.

This is the challenge that Republicans are facing right now. Moderates (especially those representing competitive states) fear the obvious and immediate backlash, and want to pass something that is less disruptive. Conservatives, on the other side, complain that the moderates want something so inoffensive as to be ineffective — something that won’t bring down premiums or bring insurers back into the various states’ markets, thus allowing the Democrats’ hyperbolic rhetoric to go unchallenged by ordinary people’s experience.

It won’t be enough for Republicans merely to check a box or keep a promise. By the same token, they also don’t have to go for an all-or-nothing approach to Obamacare repeal that maintains perfect ideological purity. What they need to do is to pass something that really takes a bite out of Obamacare’s worst provisions, to the point that people will actually be glad they did it. And within the GOP right now, conservatives are right to demand at least that much.

Can Republicans bounce back from this initial failure in the Senate? They bounced back from the initial failure of the House companion bill. The dynamic in the Senate is quite different — individual senators have much larger electorates, larger followings, and more independence from their leaders — but they also understand the potential consequences of failing to pass anything and suffering a destructive rout on this issue, which would throw their ability to govern into question and further harm their party’s image.