Broken promises are as old as politics itself, and there are many famous examples of them in modern history. President George H.W. Bush's "read my lips, no new taxes" pledge comes immediately to mind, as does President Bill Clinton reneging on his middle-class tax cut, and President Barack Obama never closing Guantanamo Bay. But in each of those cases, those were promises that were made in a given campaign by a given politician. The promise of Obamacare repeal is much different.
Republicans ran on repealing and replacing Obamacare for seven years, over the course of four election cycles. They won the House majority in 2010 in large part because of the backlash against the passage of Obamacare — and the vow to "repeal and replace" Obamacare was part of their "Pledge to America" campaign document that year. The botched rollout of Obamacare helped them win the Senate in 2014. House candidates, Senate candidates, gubernatorial candidates, and even state legislative candidates ran against Obamacare — and won.
Though President Trump was always an unorthodox candidate on healthcare (vacillating between praising single-payer and touting a free market plan), he consistently campaigned on repealing and replacing Obamacare, and exploited news of spiking premiums in the weeks leading up to the presidential election.
Republicans were always moving the goal posts on voters. That is, during campaign season, they made boasts about repeal, and then once in office, they talked about procedural complications. In 2010, they campaigned on repeal, but by 2011, they said they needed the Senate. In 2014, they won the Senate, but by 2015 they said as long as Obama was in office, nothing would become law. In 2016, they told conservative voters, even reluctant ones, that if they voted for Trump despite any reservations, they'd finally be able to repeal Obamacare. In November, voters gave them unified control of Washington. And yet after just two months on the job, they have thrown in the towel and said they're willing to abandon seven years of promises.
There are a lot of people who want to conveniently lay the blame for this stunning failure on recalcitrant members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. If only these conservative hardliners were willing to give way, we'd be on the road to repeal, defenders of leadership would like to have us believe. This is convenient, both because there are always people in Washington eager to take aim at conservative purists, and also because it has the makings of a great ironic hot take for journalists: "How conservatives saved Obamacare."
Now, let me be clear, in past fights, I've never been reluctant to criticize hardliners when I thought that they were being unreasonable or irresponsible. For instance, I disagreed with the hard-line position on the debt ceiling, didn't think forcing a government shutdown to defund Obamacare would work, and supported the deal that made most of the Bush tax cuts permanent (as opposed to letting them all expire). But I don't think it's fair to scapegoat Freedom Caucusers here. They are being blamed for making the naive mistake of assuming that Republicans wanted to do what they were promising to do for seven years.
In this case, the hardliners were playing a productive role by pointing out the real policy consequences of the piecemeal approach being pursued by the House leadership. Though we'll never know for sure how the numbers might have looked if a vote had taken place, it's clear that many centrist members of the Republican caucus were also prepared to vote this bill down. House conservatives, if they could be blamed for anything, it's for having the audacity to urge leadership to actually honor seven years of pledges to voters to repeal Obamacare. If anybody was moving the goal posts, it wasn't Freedom Caucusers, it was those who were trying to sell a bill that kept much of Obamacare's regulatory architecture in place as a free market repeal and replace plan.
Sure, I know, Republicans had a narrow majority, and they could only pass something through the Senate by reconciliation, which imposes limitations. But the thing is, Republicans don't hide behind the vagaries of Senate procedure during campaign season. Trump did not win the Republican nomination telling rallies of thousands of people, "We're going to repeal and replace Obamacare — as long as it satisfies the Byrd rule in the judgment of the Senate parliamentarian!"
What's so utterly disgraceful, is not just that Republicans failed so miserably, but that they barely tried, raising questions about whether they ever actually wanted to repeal Obamacare in the first place.
Republicans for years have criticized the process that produced Obamacare, and things certainly got ugly. But after having just witnessed this debacle, I think Paul Ryan owes Nancy Pelosi an apology.
One has to admire the commitment that Democrats and Obama had to delivering something they campaigned on and truly believed in. They spent 13 months getting the bill from an initial concept to final passage, and pressed on during many points when everybody was predicting doom. They had public hearings, multiple drafts of different bills, they kept negotiating, even worked into Christmas. They made significant changes at times, but also never lost sight of their key goals. They didn't back down in the face of angry town halls and after losing their filibuster-proof majority, and many members cast votes that they knew risked their political careers. Obama himself was a leader, who consistently made it clear that he was not going to walk away. He did countless rallies, meetings, speeches — even a "summit" at the Blair House — to try to sell the bill, talking about details, responding to criticisms of the bill to the point that he was mocked by conservatives for talking so much about healthcare.
The contrast between Obama and Democrats on healthcare and what just happened is stunning. House Republicans slapped together a bill in a few weeks (months if we're being generous) behind closed doors with barely any debate. They moved the bill through committees at blazing speed, conducted closed-door negotiations that resulted in relatively minor tweaks to the bill, and within 17 days, Trump decided that he'd had enough, and was ready to walk away if members didn't accept the bill as is. It reminded me of the scene in "Duck Soup," in which Groucho Marx portrays Rufus T. Firefly, leader of the fictional Freedonia. Firefly conducts a cabinet meeting that he starts by saying he'll take up old business. One official says, "I wish to discuss the tariff." Firefly responds, "Sit down, that's new business." When nobody has any old business to discuss he decides to turn to new business. "About that tariff —" the same official interjects. "Too late," Firefly responds, "That's old business already."
This is not too far off from the process we just witnessed. Healthcare is incredibly complicated stuff, with each provision of legislation being interconnected with others. It can't be negotiated like a spending bill in which two people have a different spending target, and somehow you manage to split the difference. We know what the market is like under Obamacare and have a decent idea of what it would be like if it were repealed. But the random, piecemeal combination of changes being made to win over votes, presents everybody with completely new policy challenges that experts were scrambling to assess in real time, yet lawmakers were being asked to vote on them within hours of being adopted. And House Freedom Caucus members are the ones who don't understand how serious governing works? Give me a break.
Here's the bottom line: Republicans didn't want to repeal Obamacare that badly. Obamacare was a useful tool for them. For years, they could use it to score short-term messaging victories. People are steamed about high premiums? We'll message on that today. People are angry about losing insurance coverage? We'll put out a devastating YouTube video about that. Seniors are angry about the Medicare cuts? Let's tweet about it. High deductibles are unpopular? We'll issue an email fact sheet. Or maybe a gif. At no point were they willing to do the hard work of hashing out their intraparty policy differences and developing a coherent health agenda or of challenging the central liberal case for universal coverage. Sure, if the U.S. Supreme Court did the job for them, they were okay with Obamacare going away. But when push came to shove, they weren't willing to put in the elbow grease.
There was a big debate over the course of the election about how out of step Trump was with the Republican Party on many issues. But if anything, this episode shows that Trump and the GOP are perfect together — limited in attention span, all about big talk and identity politics, but uninterested in substance.
Failing to get the votes on one particular bill is one thing. But failing and then walking away on seven years of promises is a pathetic abdication of duty. The Republican Party is a party without a purpose.