Paul Ryan’s Political Blind Spot

By pushing through an Obamacare replacement that has little support with the public or his caucus, he’s risking a major political backlash against the GOP.

House Speaker Paul Ryan
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
March 14, 2017, 8 p.m.

House Speak­er Paul Ry­an is a bril­liant policy wonk, but he seems ob­li­vi­ous to the pop­u­list polit­ic­al forces that pro­pelled Don­ald Trump to the pres­id­ency. And after this month’s dis­play of un­even health care sales­man­ship by the White House, it’s not clear that Trump ap­pre­ci­ates how the speak­er’s health care le­gis­la­tion threatens to ali­en­ate the work­ing-class voters who provided his nar­row mar­gin of vic­tory in last year’s pres­id­en­tial elec­tion.

The emer­ging mess over selling Ry­an’s ver­sion of health care re­form is ex­pos­ing an un­pleas­ant polit­ic­al real­ity for the fisc­ally re­spons­ible wing of the Re­pub­lic­an Party: People like free stuff, and it’s aw­fully dif­fi­cult to take en­ti­tle­ments away after they’re gran­ted. Ry­an’s en­tire ca­reer has been based on the sunny be­lief that well-in­ten­tioned re­forms have a siz­able con­stitu­ency of voters wor­ried about budget-bust­ing gov­ern­ment giveaways. But there’s a long trail of evid­ence that points the oth­er way. Just look at Trump’s win­ning cam­paign mes­sage, unique for a Re­pub­lic­an, pledging to pro­tect en­ti­tle­ments.

Pres­id­ent George W. Bush learned that the hard way when he tackled So­cial Se­cur­ity re­form at the be­gin­ning of his second term. Al­though Bush claimed a man­date from his reelec­tion, many nervous Re­pub­lic­ans quickly de­fec­ted as Demo­crats ef­fect­ively ex­ploited voter anxi­ety about privat­iz­ing a long-stand­ing pub­lic pro­gram. In 2012, when Ry­an was tapped as Mitt Rom­ney’s run­ning mate, Rom­ney dis­tanced him­self from the “Path to Prosper­ity” budget blue­print that Ry­an had cham­pioned in the House. That didn’t stop Demo­crats from slam­ming the tick­et for sup­port­ing cuts to Medi­care—one ma­jor reas­on why the Rom­ney-Ry­an tick­et ran poorly among work­ing-class voters, es­pe­cially in the Mid­west­ern swing states that would go on to sup­port Trump in 2016.

Even Pres­id­ent Obama’s sig­na­ture health care le­gis­la­tion cre­ated both polit­ic­al win­ners and losers, which is the main reas­on it be­came such a po­lar­iz­ing law. Polit­ic­ally speak­ing, its fatal flaw was that it re­dis­trib­uted be­ne­fits from the young to the old, and from the wealthy to the poor. It placed in­flex­ible man­dates on young­er Amer­ic­ans and small busi­nesses, while rais­ing premi­ums for many who bought in­sur­ance on the in­di­vidu­al mar­ket. All that dis­rup­tion came at a massive polit­ic­al cost, in­clud­ing both cham­bers of Con­gress.

So it’s sur­pris­ing that Ry­an didn’t pick up any polit­ic­al les­sons des­pite hav­ing a front-row seat to ap­praise the de­fects of Obama­care. For all the at­ten­tion be­ing paid to the 29 dis­rupt­ive Free­dom Caucus mem­bers in the House, it’s the 36 Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers in com­pet­it­ive dis­tricts who are much more im­port­ant to the speak­er’s fu­ture. While many are re­main­ing tight-lipped now, there’s palp­able nervous­ness that they’re be­ing forced to cast a polit­ic­ally pois­on­ous vote for le­gis­la­tion that has little chance of passing through the Sen­ate.

Re­mem­ber: It’s the House that is po­ten­tially in play for 2018, not the Sen­ate. Ry­an is risk­ing his party’s com­fort­able con­trol of the lower cham­ber on a bet that re­peal­ing and re­pla­cing Obama­care is the top pri­or­ity for Amer­ic­ans. And he’s do­ing it without en­er­get­ic back­ing from Pres­id­ent Trump, and without even at­tempt­ing to win over red-state Demo­crats up for reelec­tion in 2018.

Rep. Dar­rell Issa of Cali­for­nia, re­garded as the most vul­ner­able House Re­pub­lic­an, has already come out against the le­gis­la­tion in its cur­rent form. Sen. Tom Cot­ton of Arkan­sas, one of the most pro-Trump voices in the Sen­ate, has been an out­spoken con­ser­vat­ive crit­ic of Ry­an’s plan. It’s no co­in­cid­ence that his home state has seen the largest re­duc­tion in the un­in­sured between 2013 and 2015. Sen. Shel­ley Moore Capito of West Vir­gin­ia, rep­res­ent­ing the Trumpi­est state in the coun­try, was one of the first four GOP sen­at­ors to cri­ti­cize the Ry­an le­gis­la­tion over con­cerns about Medi­caid fund­ing.

The fact that the cri­ti­cisms are com­ing from states where Trump won over­whelm­ingly should be es­pe­cially con­cern­ing to the White House. The most out­spoken sen­at­ori­al crit­ics of Ry­an’s le­gis­la­tion hail from Ohio, Ken­tucky, Arkan­sas, Texas, West Vir­gin­ia, and Utah—all solidly GOP states in last year’s elec­tion. The fact that eco­nom­ic self-in­terest is trump­ing polit­ic­al par­tis­an­ship on this is­sue should be a ma­jor red flag to Re­pub­lic­ans. In fact, a new Demo­crat­ic sur­vey of Obama-Trump voters (con­duc­ted by An­za­lone-Liszt Grove Re­search) found that 58 per­cent of them viewed Obama­care fa­vor­ably. This is the new GOP con­stitu­ency that cham­pioned Trump’s pop­u­lism but nev­er was com­fort­able with tra­di­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an or­tho­doxy.

As one de­jec­ted Demo­crat­ic poll­ster told me after the elec­tion: “The only way we can win back Obama-Trump voters is on Planned Par­ent­hood cuts or if they over­reach on health care.” The GOP strategy is play­ing right in­to Demo­crat­ic hands. It’s the equi­val­ent of the At­lanta Fal­cons get­ting pass-happy des­pite hold­ing a 25-point lead over the New Eng­land Pat­ri­ots in the Su­per Bowl. The GOP’s polit­ic­al max­im should be akin to the Hip­po­crat­ic Oath: First, do no harm. In­stead, they are en­dan­ger­ing their most vul­ner­able mem­bers.

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