The stronger than expected showing by Democrat Jon Ossoff in Georgia’s special election on April 18, followed by Ron Estes’ closer than expected victory in Kansas on April 11 is a clear warning sign for Republicans. (Full disclosure: Estes is a friend but was a strong candidate.) The question is: How should Republicans respond?
The choice is clear. Produce results or go home. Practically, there were and are very good reasons why health care was the first item on the results agenda. That is still the case. The “reform, or else” argument wasn’t a scare tactic designed to bully members. Instead, it was and is a reality-check informed by history and data. Here are three reasons why.
1. Historical trends are not on our side. In mid-term elections since 1862 the president’s party has lost seats 92 percent of the time (in 36 of 39 elections). Democrats need to gain 25 seats in the House to gain a majority in 2018. Based on historical trends, Democrats have a 54 percent chance of picking up those seats (21 of the 39 mid-terms since 1862 saw swings of more than 25 seats against the president’s party).
This trend may not hold, of course. Today’s House is less volatile (fewer seats are up for grabs due to redistricting). But this trend has persisted with few interruptions because it reflects human nature. People tend to grasp for change and new political beginnings only to be frustrated by a system of government that resists change.
One could also this dynamic buyer’s remorse; waning infatuation; novelty entropy; the fading of the new car smell, and so on. In any event, voters tend to take out their unhappiness and dashed expectations on the president’s party. Republicans should assume they’re vulnerable to this regret and retaliation effect in 2018.
2. Trump and Republicans now own health care, no matter what. When Barack Obama was president he spent much of his eight years in office blaming George W. Bush for all of his troubles. Mainstream voters, not just conservatives, found this excuse grating, and they punished Obama’s party as a result. Republicans are delusional if they think this strategy will be any more effective for President Trump than it was for Obama.
Not surprisingly, the Kaiser Family Foundation came out with a poll recently that found that 61 percent of voters will blame President Trump and Republicans for any future problems with health care, while only 31 percent will blame Obama and Democrats.
3. For far too many voters, single-payer isn’t such a bad idea after all. An Economist/YouGov poll recently asked used voters if they favored the Democrats’ preferred euphemism for Soviet-style single payer health care (a.k.a. “Medicare for all”) the results were not encouraging. The poll found that nearly a majority (48 percent) of Republicans supported the idea.
The exit polls from the 2016 election weren’t reassuring either. As I’ve written elsewhere, even though 47 percent of voters thought Obamacare went too far, 48 percent though it was either “just about right” (18 percent) or “didn’t go far enough” (30 percent).
What do these three trends and data points mean for Republicans? The costs of inaction could be very high, even catastrophic — losing power and ushering in the single-payer system the Left has long dreamed of. A “bad bill” that was only marginally better than the status quo would be a far better outcome than doing nothing. There is no scenario in which voters will blame the party out of power for the incompetence of the party currently in power.
There is plenty of blame to go around for the initial failure of the American Health Care Act (AHCA). All sides can fairly blame leadership for spending years pursuing the short-term political benefits of attacking Obamacare ahead of the far more difficult work of building consensus around an alternative.
Before Obamacare passed, I started trying to sell thoughtful alternatives written by my former boss, U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, and others. Too many on our side were content with adding bills like ours to our “menu of options.” That’s a polite way of refusing to do the hard work of consensus building around an alternative that could get a majority in the House and 60 votes in the Senate.
Still, if anyone in the “leadership class” deserves a break it’s House Speaker Paul Ryan. When we were crafting an Obamacare alternative in 2009 our go-to ally in the House was Ryan. He hasn’t given up the fight to define what we’re for and has taken a lot of unfair criticism without retaliating. No one, including Speaker Ryan, is preventing other House members from gathering 218 votes for a better bill. And I suspect no one would be happier if someone dreamed up a better “Better Way” than Ryan himself.
Meanwhile, conservatives can fairly blame moderates for not meaning it when they voted for “full repeal” in 2015. At the same time, moderates, leadership, and true conservatives can fairly blame the ridiculous “defund” strategy of 2013, which apparently believed Barack Obama could be persuaded to give up his signature achievement if we would only commit mass ritual suicide on the altar of bad strategy.
Fortunately, most of the Freedom Caucus now wants a solution. Even if they’re Johnny-come-latelies to the replace debate, they deserve credit for working in good faith to fix health care (after working in bad faith to derail the AHCA).
The truth of the moment is that no side is blameless. All sides need to just let it go.
The practical reality is that Congress must move quickly if it’s going to tackle health care in 2017. Because there can only be one locomotive on the legislative track for budget reconciliation — the parliamentary process Republicans hope to use to pass a health-care bill — the deadline for action is roughly Memorial Day. Doing health care first will make the rest of the agenda easier. Moreover, it will show voters that Republicans are more concerned with results than factional purity pageants.
Democrats were willing to sacrifice their party to pass Obamacare. Are Republicans willing to make the same sacrifice for their principles?
History — and the recent races in Georgia and Kansas — suggests that Republicans may die politically no matter what they do. So let’s die from our wounds after we seize the hill — not before.
John Hart is the former Communications Director for U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, the founder of Mars Hill Strategies and an adviser to the One Nation Health coalition.