This week, as yet another attempt at passing a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare foundered, the characterization of Congressional Republicans’ ongoing efforts began to sound like these legislators had invited some living dead thing into their home. As ABC News’s Rick Klein put it, “The GOP health care proposals are now in their zombie phase, and the undead can be hard to kill off.” Even as members of the Senate’s divided Republican caucus met Wednesday night to offer some ritual incantations to bridge their gaps, they too, could not escape the macabre observations of outsiders. As one anonymous Republican aide told Axios’s Jonathan Swan and Caitlin Owens: “This is just the death rattle.”
At this point, it is perhaps appropriate to think of Republican lawmakers as haunted—chased through the halls of Congress by the ghosts of their past vows, binding them to a promise they can’t actually resolve. This is no longer a legislative process, it’s an exorcism—and it’s not clear how this demon will be expelled, once and for all, so that the Republican-controlled Congress can move on to other critical agenda items.
As is often the case, the devil resides in the details. Republicans have been thus far unable to actually craft a replacement bill because every time it starts to resemble something that might look like an even remotely generous entitlement benefit, the party’s arch-conservatives rebel against it. But whenever its right wing gets more of what they want, the party’s moderates start to get skittish, and withhold their support.
And around and around they go. Never let it be said that the Republicans don’t have a big tent, but in this case, this tension is fatal. Lose a handful of votes on either side and there’s no deal. And while Wednesday night’s meeting resembled a game enough effort to broker a truce between the warring sides, it’s telling that nobody could bring the two groups’ most outspoken leaders—Senator Rand Paul (R-Kent.) and Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine)—to the table.
These are ministrations in desperate need of a minister. But the party’s standard-bearer, President Donald Trump, has been slow to don the required priestly vestments. Trump’s engagement in this debate has—to put it mildly—only really come in fits and starts. Even when he offers his presidential guidance, it’s all over the shop.
During the campaign, Trump often allowed his supporters to envision a health care bill that was far more generous than his predecessor’s law. “We’re going to have insurance for everybody,” he told the Washington Post. “We don’t want anyone who currently has insurance to not have insurance,” vowed Trump’s aide-de-camp, Kellyanne Conway. There would be no cuts to Medicaid. Individual care would be more comprehensive and cheaper. “Everybody’s going to be taken care of much better than they’re taken care of now,” Trump promised.
But when the House of Representatives passed a bill that was decidedly none of these things, Trump celebrated the milestone in the Rose Garden, calling the measure “incredibly well-crafted,” and certain to bring an end to “ravages” and “suffering.” Days later, however, he reversed course, referring to the same bill as “mean” and charging the Senate with the task of “improving” it.
Just this week, the Daily Beast’s Lachlan Markay and Asawin Suebsaeng tracked Trump taking four different positions on health care in a dizzying 48-hour span. A senior White House official confessed to them that there was neither a “mechanism in place for making sure the president stays on message when he doesn’t have one,” nor any “real [internal] effort to keep him from contradicting” himself over and over again.
Now, Trump seems to have settled. “I think we’re probably in that position where we’ll let Obamacare fail,” Trump said, defiantly adding, “We’re not going to own it. I’m not going to own it. I can tell you, the Republicans are not going to own it.”
Never mind that Barack Obama owned all of the backlash when he worked to make the Affordable Care Act a reality nearly a decade ago. But an intriguingly Trumpian method of “owning” health care reform is available. The Republicans could simply shore up Obamacare’s loose planks, reclaim the coopted-from-conservatives health-care policy as their own property, and reap the electoral benefits of expanding coverage and managing the Obamacare market better than the Democrats could on their own. Trump—who’s best known for turning half-measures into semi-profitable ventures by stamping his name on them—could earn a similar win, and perhaps even deliver on some of those past promises.
But eight years of Republican railing against Obama’s health care bill—there are those ghosts again!—have well and truly hemmed them in, making this unlikely, if not impossible. So there’s little else to do but try to put the blame for these failings on Democrats.
It’s a dubious premise. Extant polling suggests that the public is unlikely to blame Democrats for the Republicans’ problems, correctly recognizing that they’ve had no hand in crafting these unpopular replacement bills, seeing as they are locked out of offering any meaningful legislation themselves. Meanwhile, by vowing to sit idly as Obamacare fails, Trump is distinctly countenancing the notion that only a dose of public misery can move the needle. But on their own, the Republicans simply seem incapable of delivering anything that doesn’t toss millions of Americans out of the insurance market.
And yet, the great irony is that, despite all of his bungling management on the matter, Trump may yet survive even this. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that Trump’s approval ratings in the counties that “fuelled his rise” stand at a strong 50 per cent. And while health care is now the dominant issue in the polls, Trump’s own base—sated with a steady diet of the President’s battles with the hated mainstream media—could very well maintain their ardour.
But all those shifting promises Trump has made over the past two years on replacing Obamacare with something “terrific” may prove to be the same source of strength for him in the months to come as it was on the campaign. Back then, it hardly mattered if reporters tracked his contradictions. Those daily revisions and retractions helped to turn Trump into a policy chameleon, allowing different Trump supporters to hear different things they liked on a daily basis.
Now, Trump’s survival depends on a test of their memory. Will they remember that Trump often inveighed against Beltway lawmakers on both sides as the biggest impediments to Making America Great Again? Or will they remember that he claimed to be a master dealmaker who vowed, “I alone can fix it”? If it’s the latter, he’s going to face a hard road to a second term. Otherwise, Trump’s coalition may be durable enough to earn him re-election, if not enable him to govern effectively.
But someone, nevertheless, has to try to govern, which is why here, at the end of yet another failed effort to replace Obamacare, Republican legislators find themselves in a bind and turning on one another. In a few short weeks, the Republican-controlled Congress will have to take up a series of weighty matters, including tax reform, the passage of a budget, and avoiding both a debt ceiling default and a potential government shutdown. And by year’s end, they will be back in campaign mode—with many Republican members potentially facing primary contests based on whether they facilitated or opposed the Obamacare repeal efforts. Further iterations of Trump’s unruly management style could complicate any or all of this, imperilling both his party’s agenda and their electoral hopes. In any event, it’s a future filled with further hauntings.
Jason Linkins is a writer who covers American politics and the media. He previously served as a columnist for The Huffington Post in Washington, DC.