Silver linings to Obamacare debacle?

The Briefing, Vol. V, Issue 13-
This week:

  • An early Republican disaster on health care reform
  • Dems try for a deal on Gorsuch, but may provoke a nuclear crisis instead
  • Democrat reaches 40 percent in poll of key House special election

Healthcare reform: The defeat of the Obamacare replacement bill was a complete disaster for Republicans. It raises questions about how effective the party can be during Trump’s presidency if its officeholders cannot reach consensus on an issue they all ran on.

It is also arguably President Trump’s most serious setback since the announcement of his presidential candidacy in June 2015.

This was not Trump’s first setback, obviously. Trump seemed to bounce back effortlessly from election losses in states like Iowa and Wisconsin during the primaries. Later, he bounced back from difficult moments during the general election campaign — the Access Hollywood tape being the most memorable.

But this legislative defeat, which befell not just Trump but also the congressional GOP leadership and Speaker Paul Ryan in particular, just wasn’t quite the same as an electoral defeat. It put the question to Trump, for the first time, about governing. As Obama’s failure to govern effectively after the 2010 election taught Americans, governing is not at all like running for office or scoring well in polls.

Trump had a very clear eye about his own role in last week’s events. He viewed it as a serious defeat for himself, and evidently he took it quite personally as well. White House advisor Steve Bannon encouraged him to make a list of disloyal Republicans for future retribution. And in his meeting with the House Freedom Caucus before the legislative process for repealing Obamacare imploded, Trump made it quite clear that what followed would be a disaster for him, and not just for Republican leaders on Capitol Hill:

Trump wanted to emphasize the political ramifications of the bill’s defeat; specifically, he said, it would derail his first-term agenda and imperil his prospects for reelection in 2020.

The rest is history, of course. And the result — whomever you want to blame for it — is that Democrats are celebrating a success, attacking Republicans as unable to govern and impugning Trump’s competence as president.

Perhaps they celebrate a bit too much. Perhaps Trump isn’t derailed quite yet, and perhaps health care reform is even still on its way, just a bit delayed. But there are nonetheless some big lessons Trump and congressional Republicans need to take away from this debacle, because it genuinely was a debacle.

One of those lessons is simply that “negotiation” doesn’t work in Washington the same way it does in the business world. Even Trump, who had successfully used a version of his negotiating strategy to win nearly every PR battle he engaged in for the last 20 months, hit a brick wall when it came to the legislative process simply because the rules there are different.

The Washington Examiner’s Byron York put it this way:

‘The Art of the Deal’ doesn’t work with ideologically-driven politicians. The pundits mentioned Trump’s most famous book thousands of times during the Obamacare negotiations. But in dealing with the doctrinaire conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus, Trump was facing differently-motivated partners than in the deal-making recounted in his 1987 book. If the president wants to succeed in Washington, he’ll have to learn how to deal with people who aren’t in it just for the money.

That goes not only for Trump’s dealings with conservatives, but also for his future dealings with House and Senate Democrats. Negotiation does have its place in politics, but it’s still a different game, not the same as Trump is accustomed to in business.

Another lesson is that over-promising can be fatal. Republicans promised to move quickly and undo something that it took Democrats more than a year to put into place. The House leadership discovered the downside of a shock and awe campaign: When it fails, it can have exactly the opposite of the intended effect.

Politically, this defeat makes passage of most other legislation seem less likely. Before, Trump’s infrastructure plan seemed unstoppable. Now, everything seems pretty stoppable. Surely last week’s events will embolden Democrats to fight everything tooth and nail.

It also harms the possibility of tax reform in a more concrete way. By repealing Obamacare’s tax hikes, Republicans had hoped to lower the baseline for a revenue-neutral tax reform package. Now, at least in theory, they will have to work with a higher revenue baseline, resulting in higher overall taxes after reform is enacted.

Will health care reform come up again this Congress? Both Trump and Ryan are acting as if it will not, and as if they have simply moved on. The chairman of the Freedom Caucus, whose members neither negotiations nor threats proved able to persuade, hinted that the legislation could make a Tom Brady-style comeback.

If there is any silver lining to all this, it is that the bill under consideration was predicted to have a seriously negative effect on many people. Because of the rigorous requirements of the reconciliation process, it would have curtailed Obamacare coverage subsidies, but without the reforms needed to bring insurance premiums back down to where they were before Obama’s law went into effect.

Still, that’s small consolation, considering that elections are contested and won, presumably, with the goal of changing policy, not just for the sake of winning and clinging to power. Also, Trump would have liked to score a win here by corralling the Freedom Caucus where others — Ryan and former Speaker John Boehner — had tried and failed.

Gorsuch confirmation: Last week, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer floated the idea of cutting a deal with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: Promise to preserve the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations, and we’ll let Garland through.

McConnell, however, is dealing from a position of strength. He doesn’t need a deal. And Democrats now appear to be acting like there won’t be one.

It should be remembered that, before the election, vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine was openly talking about going nuclear to push through Hillary Clinton’s Supreme Court nominations. Democrats’ problem is that, having already made the decision themselves in 2013 to strip the Senate minority of its rights, they lost their Senate majority and now find themselves on the wrong end of the gun.

They are, in fact, looking for a face-saving way out of a fight which they cannot win but which they also cannot appear to lose through capitulation. The nuclear option represents one such way out, but it is the least desirable one for them. It would allow Republicans to avoid making a controversial power grab if and when the debate over the next Supreme Court appointment occurs, assuming Trump is the one making it and they still hold the Senate majority.

This time, Democrats would much prefer to put up a show of resistance yet fall short of the 41 votes it takes to sustain a filibuster. If they made a deal this time around, it would leave the option there for next time. Which is of course why McConnell isn’t interested.

It is easy enough for Democratic senators — especially those in red states — to declare their opposition to Gorsuch without committing to a filibuster against him. If eight of them choose this route, the nuclear crisis is averted. For now.

It is worth bearing in mind throughout that, had Harry Reid not invoked the nuclear option in 2013, its invocation now would be viewed as something unthinkable.

One more point: Democrats’ best argument for blocking Gorsuch is that Republicans blocked President Obama’s last nominee, Merrick Garland. Turnabout is fair play, they can say.

Yet the context of the situation here is different in at least one crucial respect: Republicans blocked Garland from the majority. They won the right to block him in an election.

The Garland fight had its roots in the earlier decision, by former Democratic Leader Harry Reid, to invoke the nuclear option. Having been thwarted in their filibusters against several lower court nominees by Reid’s action, minority Republicans were determined that once they regained the Senate majority, very few judges would be confirmed. And beginning January 7, 2015, after they returned to session with nine additional Republicans and the majority, they confirmed only 22 of the 76 judges Obama appointed, compared to the 134 that had been confirmed in the previous Congress. By slowing the confirmation process to a crawl, the new Senate Republican majority held Obama to roughly the same overall number of confirmed lower court judges as George W. Bush had enjoyed.

Republicans might well have blocked Garland either way. But between the lack of comity in the Senate that followed the nuclear option, and the decisive gain of political power that the election brought about for Republicans, the conditions for ignoring a president’s Supreme Court nominee were all present when McConnell made his fateful decision. And that brings us to where we are today.

House 2017

Georgia-6: In a field of 18 candidates from both parties, and with no one taking sides on the Republican side, the Democrat enjoying his party’s institutional support is obviously going to rise above all others. But how far should he be able to rise before Republicans panic?

A poll released last week shows Jon Ossoff at 40 percent in the jungle primary, which takes place April 18. Assuming nobody gets 50 percent, the top two candidates, regardless of party, will go to a runoff.

This is a House district where Republicans have no business losing. Tom Price, who vacated the seat to become President Trump’s HHS secretary, typically won with 60 to 65 percent of the vote. This would be the equivalent of Scott Brown’s 2010 victory in Massachusetts — a real warning shot for Republicans, and the defeat of the GOP health care bill is likely to damage the party’s cause.

The Republican favorite is 2014 Senate candidate and former Secretary of State Karen Handel, who stood at 20 percent. The Club for Growth has backed Bob Gray.

Montana-At Large: If Georgia is the exciting House special election, this one is the opposite. Republicans are playing it safe, with Speaker Ryan’s group spending a large six-figures on the race, but the opposite party is largely absent. Having unfortunately nominated Rob Quist, a musician who favors mandatory gun registration, Democrats failed to put their best foot forward and may have blown a chance in a state where Trump won big, but where Democrats do sometimes win.