Daydreams of a Less Consequential Washington

Back in late summer of 2011, when Rick Perry was running for president, the (then) Texas governor’s message to voters was somewhat of a unique one:

“I’ll work every day to try to make Washington, DC as inconsequential in your life as I can.”

Small-government conservatives understood and shared his sentiment. The notion of centralized power being peeled away from the top-heavy federal government (an entity that most Americans don’t trust), and dropped down to local governments (and in some cases, the private sector), was an appealing one. The belief, of course, is that with fewer hurdles and restrictions standing in the way of individual freedom, the pursuits of happiness and the American Dream can be more easily achieved.

Liberals didn’t get it. Some believed Perry was vowing to abdicate presidential leadership, and undermine the responsibilities of elected representatives on Capitol Hill. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews even framed Perry’s words as a call for anarchy.

Writing for The Politico, Jeff Greenfield put forth the argument that Americans have never embraced the idea that the government should be inconsequential in their lives. He described how U.S. citizens have historically wanted and/or needed federal intervention, whether it be in regard to education, voting rights, the welfare state, etc.

Of course, Perry’s statement wasn’t that the federal government had no role to play in Americans’ lives. He just wanted to reduce that role, pushing the power closer to the people.  Greenfield was right in that much of the country expects government benefits and aid, and these people have only grown in numbers over the years. Perhaps the most glaring evidence we’ve seen of this was the 2016 election, where both of major-party presidential nominees campaigned against entitlement-reform, and for government-heavy healthcare.

Still, it would have been interesting to see how Perry’s theme would have played with the general electorate, had a series of gaffes and political misfires not sunken his primary hopes. He used the slogan again when he ran for president the second time, but with Candidate Trump soaking up all of the media’s attention (from a ridiculously bloated GOP field), and uncharitable memories from four years earlier, his candidacy didn’t get very far.

Perry likely won’t ever run again, but our current political climate is further illustrating the wisdom of his doctrine with each passing day.

Take the issue of healthcare, for example. We learned early in the Obama presidency that a political party with enough power in DC can go against the will of a strong majority of voters, and — in one fell swoop — completely screw up a significant portion of the U.S. economy.

Prior to the passage of Obamacare, national polls showed that roughly 20% of Americans were unhappy with their healthcare situations. Rather than focusing on the concerns of this relatively small percentage of individuals, the Democrats turned the nation’s entire insurance system on its head, selling (and signing into law) fatally-flawed legislation on a plethora of false premises and promises. The Affordable Care Act has left us with skyrocketing premiums and deductibles, fewer healthcare choices, and another insolvent entitlement.

The looming catastrophe, and promises of “repeal and replace,” led to Republicans picking up significant seats in DC. And now that the GOP finally holds the presidency, one would think that the party would be in a great position to start righting the healthcare ship.

Only, that’s not what’s happening.

Republican lawmakers, despite repeated efforts, can’t reach enough of an internal consensus to move forward on any kind of reform bill. And with a deeply distrusted (and increasingly unpopular) Republican president sitting in the Oval Office, anything with his name attached to it has become politically poisonous. In fact, President Trump’s election-win managed to do the unthinkable by pulling Obamacare’s approval rating above water (for the first time in its existence).

Additionally, the political demagoguery from the Democratic party has again reached levels of pure insanity, with U.S. senators (most notably Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders) publicly claiming that even modest changes to the current system will result in mass deaths. The rhetoric may be reckless and utterly dishonest, but it has also been effective.

I live in Colorado, where the effects of Obamacare have hit us particularly hard. The individual health-insurance market has been devastated. Major exchanges have collapsed. My family lost our affordable plan early on, and soon after, I lost my doctor. I have friends who are paying more for their monthly health insurance premiums than they are for their home mortgages. And I assure you, none of us are amused by the perpetual clown-show in Washington that creates and maintains these obstacles.

It all begs a few simple questions: Why do a handful of elected leaders, who don’t even represent our state, get to make such consequential healthcare decisions on our behalf? Why should a U.S. president’s popularity or unpopularity matter at all, when it comes to the healthcare coverage of a private citizen? Why on earth is Washington DC this consequential in our lives?

To find the answers, we unfortunately have to look at ourselves. We keep electing populist personalities who promise us the world, rather than individualist leaders who are humble enough to believe that communities should have a significant say in what’s best for them. The more problems we entrust high-ranking political salespeople to deal with, the less likely they are to be solved. And because too few of us understand that, we’ve put ourselves in a position where we have to endure the endless posturing and drama that plays out every day in DC, while hoping something constructive will eventually come from it.

Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case. But we’ll keep getting behind such leaders, and we’ll continue to be let down, because we’ve made Washington far too consequential in our lives. Sadly, at this point in our history, the alternative feels like little more than a daydream.

On Healthcare, Trump is Giving Us What We Paid For

In a piece I wrote last October, I presented the argument that of all the GOP presidential candidates that primary voters had to choose from in the election, Donald Trump was the last person Republicans should have trusted to take on Obamacare.

The nominee rarely talked about the issue during the campaign, despite opposition to the Affordable Care Act being a big reason for why the GOP had made significant gains in congress since 2010. And when Trump did weigh in on healthcare, his rhetoric was usually incomprehensible. Though vowing to repeal the ACA (on grounds of costliness and government restriction), he complimented government-run single-payer coverage and promoted universal healthcare. He even took opportunities to parrot left-wing talking points, equating Republicans’ free market ideas to letting people “die on the sidewalks.”

Though Candidate Trump’s reflexively liberal stances on various topics were well-documented throughout the campaign, the broader picture on healthcare seemed to be that he neither understood nor particularly cared about the issue. After all, Making America Great Again wasn’t about details or serious plans, but rather harnessing populist sentiment. Trump understood that it’s much easier to demagogue a complicated concern than it is to offer a credible solution (especially one that involves rolling back a government entitlement).  So, he punted. And many on the Right shrugged.

Six months into the Trump presidency, despite multiple attempts to pass healthcare-reform legislation, GOP majorities in the House and Senate haven’t been able to get the job done. They’re about to head home for their Fourth of July recess with nothing beyond a continually changing bill to show for it.

The are a few reasons for this, including too much disorganization and little consensus within the Republican party, and the shameless scare tactics of the Democratics (including the disgusting claim that GOP reform will literally “kill” people). But perhaps the biggest problem — as I had worried back in the election-cycle — is Trump himself.

Part of the issue is the president’s chronically low approval numbers. They’re symptomatic of the lack of trust Americans have in him. Trump’s petty conduct, his dishonesty, and the needless fights he picks have assisted the media in expending his political capital. Obamacare now has more public support than ever before, in large part because of that trust deficit.

Another element — a big one — is that the man who ran for the White House as a consummate deal-maker appears to have little idea of what he’s doing.

Reporting for The Weekly Standard earlier this week, Andrew Egger wrote that “the president’s efforts are hindered by the fact that he seems to care more about signing a bill than he does about the policy issues at stake. Several senators who have spoken with Trump about the evolving legislation describe an executive with little apparent understanding of the basic principles of the reforms and virtually no understanding of the details.”

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has listened to Trump’s vague healthcare remarks. At times, the president can’t even seem to agree with himself on the matter, categorizing a version of the House-passed bill that he supported as “mean.”

Speaking to Republican senators at the White House the other day, the president said of the struggling legislation, “This will be great if we get it done. And if we don’t get it done, it’s just going to be something that we’re not going to like, and that’s okay, and I understand that very well.”

I can’t imagine such remarks instilled a lot of confidence.

Of course, it’s not fair to place all of the blame on Trump. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell have also made mistakes, seemingly caught unprepared to effectively deal with an issue that Republican candidates had been running on (and winning with) for eight years.

But President Trump is the leader of the party. His failure to understand the inner-workings of a bill that he claims is great, and effectively communicate that greatness to the electorate, has become a major hindrance. Trump may be a strong salesman when it comes to himself, but when advocating for policy, the results haven’t been particularly good.

Also at fault: Republican voters. Yes, you.

If the issue of healthcare were as important to Republicans and conservatives as we had been insisting for years, we would have nominated someone who had some passion (or at least enough interest to understand it) to help lead the effort against Obamacare. We didn’t do that. We instead (at least a plurality of us) got behind the guy who repeatedly said (on the few occasions when he actually talked about healthcare) that he was going to cover “everyone” and that the “government will pay” for it. Not exactly “repeal and replace” rhetoric.

Whether or not you believe that other Republican candidates would have defeated Hillary Clinton (I personally think several of them had a good shot), we shouldn’t be at all surprised that President Trump has been this weak on the issue. He doesn’t care or know enough about it to effectively sell reform ideas — not to his party’s leaders and not to the constituents they work for.

Thus, there’s a pretty good chance that when something eventually does get passed, the bill will look even more like Obamacare than the current one does…and a lot less like what Republican voters have been demanding for nearly a decade. Something tells me that the president and his most loyal supporters would be perfectly fine with that, but it would be a huge failure for both the party and the country.

Does the GOP Now Own Obamacare?

freedomDuring Republican primaries, we often hear the “Buckley Rule” referred to by conservative commentators. Its popular understanding (which doesn’t quite match up with its literal meaning as put forth by William F. Buckley Jr.) is that Republicans should support the most conservative candidate that is electable.

The concept has always made sense to me. I believe in conservative governance and thus I support conservative candidates, but political viability is crucially important. If the most conservative candidate in the room can’t beat their Democratic opponent in a general election (for whatever reason), I don’t see the sense in choosing that person over a primary candidate that can.

I generally feel the same way about policy. We live under a two-party system of divided government, so when it comes to legislation, we’re rarely going to get exactly what we want…even when the party we align with is in power. Legislators have it within them to present an absolutely brilliant bill that fixes a very serious problem — a bill so great it would draw a tear of pride from every true-blue conservative in the country. But if that bill can’t get enough support to pass through both houses of congress and be signed into law by the president, what good is it other than for symbolic purposes?

Now, let’s talk about an imperfect and partial legislative solution. What if there were an opportunity to take some specific elements of that amazing bill, get them passed and signed into law right away, and then work on additional conservative reforms separately? Wouldn’t it make sense to at least get the ball rolling? Isn’t a bird in the hand worth two in the bush, especially when the alternative may be no birds at all?

Well, apparently the answer to that question is no, based on what happened yesterday with the American Health Care Act.

You see, the AHCA wasn’t the sweeping “repeal and replace” solution to Obamacare that conservatives have long dreamed of. Rather than working off of the false premise that the system could be reverted back to the long-gone insurance market of 2009, it reflected the reality that without a thoughtful transition back to the free market, millions of people currently dependent on Obamacare would be tossed off of their coverage. Furthermore, a full repeal bill would never have made it past the 60-vote majority threshold of the U.S. Senate.

Instead, the AHCA was designed as a compilation of budgetary-related items that would dismantle parts of Obamacare using a reconciliation process which only requires a 50-vote majority. If it had garnished enough Republican support in the House, it would have almost certainly gone on to become law. From there, in separate phases, regulatory adjustments and additional legislation would have been used to achieve increased insurance market competition and other consumer savings.

That didn’t cut the mustard for a lot of conservatives, including some in the media, think tanks, the House Freedom Caucus, and a handful of influential U.S. senators. They refused to even acknowledge the broader plan beyond the AHCA, and instead framed the bill as Obamacare-lite. They joined the Democratic party and much of the media in working to derail the effort. Even after receiving multiple concessions from the bill’s proponents, the Freedom Caucus (a conservative coalition of roughly 30 members of congress) refused to budge.

The result: The AHCA went down in flames, courtesy of the party that created it, and a tremendous opportunity was wasted. After seven years of campaigning against Obamacare, conservative Republicans single-handedly saved it. President Obama’s signature legislative achievement will remain intact indefinitely, while it continues to fall apart, and scores of Americans suffer under its devastating consequences.

Politically, this was a crushing political defeat, not just for President Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan (who did their best to save the bill), but for those of us who are more interested in shrinking government and expanding freedom (even in small, incremental steps) than we are simply preaching about it through soaring rhetoric. The GOP looks absolutely feckless right now, despite being the party in control of Washington. President Obama has to be loving this.

While some of the opposition to the bill was earnest and understandable, the unfortunate reality is that some sectors of the conservative establishment are more motivated to spread sanctimonious outrage than actually fix problems. If that weren’t the case, this bill would have received the numbers it needed.

So where do we go from here? Should the Republicans give up their efforts to replace Obamacare? The answer is no, but it’s tough to imagine the situation getting better.

The GOP has sent out the signal that it’s not willing to put forth a serious solution that can actually be signed into law. The party squandered an extraordinary amount of political capital right out of the gate, under this new Republican administration. The shameless demagoguery from both sides of the aisle has again left the public scared and confused. And if anyone thinks that President Trump is going to waste more time on this, they haven’t been listening to his words on health care over the past two years.

The truth is that health care was never a central issue for Trump, and it’s really quite surprising that he backed the bill as strongly as he did (which he deserves credit for). In the primary, he actually campaigned on universal healthcare (very different than the AHCA), and in the general election, he barely spoke on the topic. He never demonstrated any real knowledge of the issue, and one gets the sense that he’d be perfectly happy to move on from it entirely — especially with this debacle earning his long bragged-about deal-making talents are large dose of mockery.

Did Paul Ryan move too quickly on health care? Probably, but he did so because conservatives demanded it (including many of the same ones who eventually left him high and dry). Ryan went to great lengths to seek compromise with the different wings of his party, but some just weren’t going to be happy until the bill was turned into something that couldn’t possibly become law.

So, after seven years of assurances, we’re not going to have a new law — at least not anytime soon. And those among us who are suffering under crippling health care costs (and no choices) will continue to suffer. Obamacare will continue to fail.

The only difference is that now, the Democrats aren’t the only ones responsible for it.

Broken Slate, a Sean Coleman Thriller