GOP Disses Its Own Supporters

The party’s health bills put the dogma of small government ahead of the economic needs of its increasingly blue-collar and older white base.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, joined by Sens. John Barrasso and Sen. John Thune meets with reporters after a closed-door Republican strategy session on July 11.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
July 19, 2017, 8 p.m.

The Senate Republican health care bill has been repeatedly crushed in a slow-motion collision between the party’s historic ideology and the interests of its modern electoral coalition. Yet congressional Republicans appear determined to plow right through the wreckage.

Even as the Senate’s latest effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act collapsed, the House Republican leadership released a 10-year federal budget blueprint that points them toward a similar confrontation, between their dominant small-government dogma and the economic needs of their increasingly blue-collar and older white base.

John F. Kennedy famously said that failure is an orphan. But the failure of the GOP drive against the ACA has many parents. One was a distracted and ineffectual President Trump. Even higher on the list sits Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose blinding hubris undermined his reputation for legislative wizardry. McConnell degraded Senate tradition by refusing to hold any public hearings or committee votes on the legislation. His closed-door process provoked unified opposition from not only Democrats, but also every major medical stakeholder.

Both the House and Senate legislation seemed hatched in a time warp. Each bill reflected the common Ronald Reagan-era belief that the Republican coalition is bound together by a determination to shrink government. Each aimed to slash taxes on top earners, torch regulations on insurers, and roll back federal spending on expanded insurance coverage (either through the private exchanges or Medicaid).

But now Republicans are increasingly dependent on voters who do not always agree that “government is the problem,” as Reagan declared. While they remain deeply skeptical of programs like food stamps that shift resources to those they consider undeserving, they have shown much more tolerance for federal spending that financially supports people like them.

The Urban Institute found that among those who would lose coverage under the Senate bill, 80 percent lacked a college degree, 70 percent were in a household where someone worked full-time, and nearly 60 percent were white. Older working adults confronted enormous premium increases. Rural areas faced disproportionate risk from the Medicaid cuts because employer-provided insurance is less common there. Counties on the front line of the opioid crisis warned that the Medicaid cuts would be devastating.

All of the groups and places on that list preponderantly backed Trump last fall. As a candidate, he recognized that reflexive hostility to government did not serve his voters’ needs; he even pledged to defend Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Yet on health care, Trump fatally deferred to the libertarian-infused instincts of House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Like many congressional Republicans, Ryan enshrines retrenching government above all other goals. On health care, that crusade opened a breach with the GOP’s own voters. In this week’s ABC News/Washington Post poll, Trump’s approval rating was 19 points lower than his vote last November among white women without a college degree, and 16 points lower among non-college-educated white men.

Those men are likely to stick with Republicans in the midterm elections. But veteran Democratic pollster Geoff Garin said the recoil on health care is so great that Democrats next year could eliminate the GOP advantage with blue-collar white women. Indeed, the ABC News/Washington Post survey showed those working-class women—who backed both Trump and GOP House candidates by nearly 30 percentage points in November—now narrowly prefer that Democrats control Congress after 2018.

Incredibly, even as the health care offensive disintegrated into disarray, Ryan bugled his troops for another charge at the same line. The new House Republican budget plan not only reaffirms the massive Medicaid cuts in the ACA-repeal bill, but it also reduces Medicare spending by nearly $500 billion. It revives Ryan’s crusade to transform the retirement program into a premium-support system that provides seniors money to purchase private insurance. This approach has long faced deep public resistance, particularly among older whites: When the Kaiser Family Foundation last polled on the idea in 2015, nearly three-fourths of whites older than 50 opposed it.

Yet the Trump administration offered a positive initial reaction to the House plan. John Weaver, the chief political strategist for Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich, views that as another step toward Trump surrendering to what Weaver calls the “Ayn Rand wing” of the party, a reference to the famous libertarian author. “The Ayn Rand approach isn’t going to win,” Weaver said. “I thought Trump had it figured out in the campaign. But that’s not who is sitting in the Oval Office.”

Trump clearly didn’t enjoy the bumpy ride to this week’s dead end on health care. But whether or not the president recognizes it, the House Republican budget is quickly buckling him up for another head-on collision with the financial interests of voters at the core of his coalition.

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