Sen. John McCain may be the single Republican officeholder most unpopular right now with his party's rank and file, but his actions this summer may well have saved his party.
I write this as someone who would have voted for both of the Obamacare replacement bills, "skinny repeal," and Graham-Cassidy, which McCain famously killed. The former was a poor bill but a vehicle to keep alive the chance of something better via a House-Senate conference committee, while the latter actually was a rather well-crafted (even if not perfect) piece of legislation.
But by killing both bills, McCain kept Republicans from implementing law opposed by huge majorities of Americans, while buying them time both to design a better statute and to regain public support for their efforts.
This was the year, after all, in which Republicans took an Obamacare law opposed by majorities (or at least pluralities) of Americans for seven years straight and somehow found a way to make the attempt to repeal it far more unpopular than the original law ever had been. All year long, Republican attention to actually explaining their approach, much less really selling it, has been shockingly weak.
This is where McCain's enduring wisdom comes in. When explaining his reasons for deciding (in effect) to kill both bills, McCain offered the same considerations each time: Bills this important, with such far-reaching consequences, should be fully vetted through the "regular order" of open committee hearings and ample amendment opportunities, while a sincere attempt should be made to garner some support from members of the opposition party.
McCain is right. This isn't mere procedural fastidiousness, but instead a highly practical approach. He correctly insists that the forms of Republican lawmaking are crucial for fairness, for better lawmaking, and for the public acceptance of the results that is essential to American civil society.
Ask most voters today what the Republican goals are for healthcare legislation, and they'll probably say "saving money for the government, for rich people, and for insurance companies." Most Americans don't understand, and certainly don't believe, that Republicans actually think their ideas will provide more access to better care for more people, at lower prices, and for better health outcomes.
Instead, all the public knows is that bills keep crawling from behind closed doors, apparently the illegitimate offspring of mysterious deals and raw political calculation. No wonder voters are suspicious.
By holding open committee hearings, letting expert analysts weigh in, and allowing members of Congress to offer and argue for amendments, legislative leaders can create a narrative of lawmakers striving to "get it right" — and, more importantly, time to explain to the public why they are doing what they are doing.
And maybe, just maybe, that extra time will also let them find the most capable messenger to do the explaining. This is the first occasion in memory that a president is his party's weakest, perhaps most counterproductive, legislative salesman. Hearings can provide the chance for a more effective communicator to emerge.
Meanwhile, voters believe, somewhat reasonably, that a new law affecting their own health and one-sixth of the economy ought to be the product of at least some bipartisan consensus. At the very least, citizens want to see the opposition party, in this case the Democrats, be actively engaged by Republicans and welcome to be part of the process. If the Democrats are pure obstructionists, that obstructionism will show itself, and condemn itself, more clearly through open and fair hearings than when Republicans try to jam through a bill, in a few short weeks, that was written in some secret hideaway.
If it takes passing a bill with Republican votes only, then so be it — but at least let the citizenry see that Republicans first made every effort to get Democrats on board.
Only through the old way, the slow way, the careful way, the McCain way, can Americans trust that lawmakers are not merely aiming at some short-term partisan triumph, but instead sweating to find what McCain humbly called "workable solutions to problems Americans are struggling with today."
All sorts of ways exist to improve upon the already-solid foundation of the Graham-Cassidy bill. Using proper procedures will allow Americans to see those improvements being offered, to understand why, and to buy into the ultimate result. That "buy in" may, in turn, be the difference between Republican success and disaster in the polls in 2018 and 2020.
There's no reason an Obamacare replacement can't be achieved early in 2018, even if it failed in 2017. If done the McCain way, Republicans can do it to public acclaim rather than opposition, and to electoral success rather than disaster.
Quin Hillyer (@QuinHillyer) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a former associate editorial page editor for the Washington Examiner.
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