With Friday’s collapse of the Republican effort to decapitate President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, it would be an understatement to say that the GOP is in disarray.
There isn’t much of a defense against the charge that after voting more than 60 times over seven years to repeal Obamacare, they couldn’t come up with anything to replace it that could pass the House, let alone the Senate, when the vote really counted. A substantial element of the very conservative House Freedom Caucus didn’t think the American Health Care Act was enough of an improvement on the much-reviled Obamacare, while a number of Republican moderates and members in swing districts felt that it was too draconian.
Much of the blame is focused on the Freedom Caucus, a group that many say wouldn’t take yes for an answer. The truth is that for many of the most conservative members of the House (and a few in the Senate), their view of the role of government is so minimalist that many would prefer the government just get out of the health care business altogether. Almost anything acceptable to this bloc of conservatives would have a very difficult time gathering enough support from the center to pass. This situation is hardly unique to addressing the problems in Obamacare that clearly exist to all but the most partisan of Democrats. It is a scenario that may well play out on other vital issues as well.
Logic would suggest that the direction House Speaker Paul Ryan and President Trump should go on many future legislative endeavors is to write off the Freedom Caucus and accommodate those in the middle—moderate and/or swing-district Republicans, and perhaps some Democrats too. Billy Moore, who served as chief of staff for two Southern House Democratic members after a stint with Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, points out that there is a long history of centrist coalitions on legislation, from the North American Fair Trade Agreement to more recent deals on appropriations measures, particularly conference reports, after each side has completed their initial partisan posturing. These occasions just don’t get a lot of media attention.
Another veteran of the Washington wars, Bill Sweeney, points to times when President Jimmy Carter couldn’t placate liberals on some issues, so he pivoted to the center—to moderate and Southern Democrats, along with some of the liberal-to-moderate Republicans who were more numerous in those days. The challenge then, according to Sweeney, who served at the time as executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was that it meant that they (Democrats) presented themselves in 1980 as the centrists but in reality didn’t stand for anything satisfactory to the Left or the Right. In any case, Sweeney argues that today, Congress behaves in a far more parliamentary fashion, making such moves more difficult to accomplish.
With an almost total absence of conservative Democrats and thinning ranks of moderate Democrats on one hand, and an almost militant anti-Trump attitude among House Democrats on the other, there is a strong disincentive for any Democrats to cooperate with the president or do anything that might even indirectly benefit his agenda. Moore suggests that while moderate Democrats come from diverse districts and many have a multitude of pet issues, it might be simpler for Trump to try to cut a deal with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who in my view tend to be more focused in their priorities. Striking a deal that addresses their urban-district agenda might actually be easier than trying to accommodate other Democrats who want too many different things.
What has to make Freedom Caucus members and other conservatives in Congress nervous is a passage in congressional chronicler Robert Draper’s Sunday New York Times Magazine piece entitled “Trump vs. Congress: Now What?” Draper writes:
When I spoke with Trump, I ventured that, based on available evidence, it seemed as though conservatives probably shouldn’t hold their breath for the next four years expecting entitlement reform. Trump’s reply was immediate. “I think you’re right,” he said. In fact, Trump seemed much less animated by the subject of budget cuts than the subject of spending increases. “We’re also going to prime the pump,” he said. “You know what I mean by ‘prime the pump’? In order to get [the economy] going, and going big league, and having the jobs coming in and the taxes that will be cut very substantially and the regulations that’ll be going, we’re going to have to prime the pump to some extent. In other words: Spend money to make a lot more money in the future. And that’ll happen.” A clearer elucidation of Keynesian liberalism could not have been delivered by Obama.
That’s enough to chill the spine of conservatives, putting them back in the position of either opposing Trump on philosophical grounds and potentially alienating many Republican voters who—polls show—overwhelmingly still approve of the president’s performance, or compromising their limited-government values.
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