Even when Republicans control the White House and both houses of Congress, liberalism remains the default ideology of the federal government.
A Republican Senate could not muster even 50 votes for the full repeal of Obamacare's taxes and spending. Six Republican senators who had voted for repeal in 2015, when the party was merely pretending it was possible, flipped on Wednesday rather than deliver.
Five of the six represent states President Trump won in November. The sixth hails from a state Trump lost by less than 3 points.
An argument can be made that repealing these parts of Obamacare while leaving its regulatory structure largely in place is a bad idea. But we are discussing a law that Republicans spent seven years campaigning against. Every GOP senator except one either voted for repeal in the past or campaigned on it in a recent election cycle. Their leader was said to have a "secret plan" to repeal Obamacare "root and branch."
There was ample time for a contingency plan or even a better approach to replacing the healthcare law.
No amount of time ever seems to be enough. Not 1 inch of ground gained by liberalism is ever ceded without a fight. Republicans can campaign against those gains. They can now tweet about them. But when it comes to action, Republicans can seldom do more than nibble around the edges. The slightest retrenchment of a healthcare law that did not even exist a decade ago is portrayed as a mass casualty event.
Perhaps the most enduring conservative domestic policy gain is keeping marginal tax rates below 40 percent for the past 30 years. (Oops!)
After Mitt Romney, Republicans were supposed to have learned how to do healthcare policy. After the Tea Party, they were supposed to have become more serious about contesting big-government liberalism. After Trump, they were supposed to have learned how to fight Democrats and the media.
The score as of Thursday morning: 0 for 3.
Little of this is surprising. Republicans had 23 years since the failure of Bill and Hillary Clinton's healthcare power grab to come up with their own alternative. Romneycare, the precursor to Obamacare, and the deficit-financed Medicare Part D was about the best they could do.
Republicans have long paid lip service to opposing big government when the Democrats are in charge, only to keep the trillions flowing once they take charge.
Yet the Tea Party was the triumph of hope over experience. Substantially a protest against former President Barack Obama, it was also believed that it could lead to a revival of constitutional conservatism.
For the first time since the ascendance of New Deal liberalism, constitutionally limited government — Washington confined to its enumerated powers — was a mainstream part of the political discourse.
Just not mainstream enough, as it turned out.
That's not entirely the Republicans' fault. In practice, the American people want a much bigger federal government than the Constitution currently authorizes.
Not long ago, a conservative wag quipped that if a president actually tried to enforce the Constitution's limits on federal power, he or she would be impeached.
But even if Republicans find a way to give Obamacare a haircut, part of a new "skinny" welfare state, it will more closely resemble past free-market corrections of liberalism's excesses than a serious constitutional conservative challenge to liberalism.
That doesn't bode well for the Tea Party project of rolling back major liberal initiatives. The point of voting Republican will remain to make the inexorable growth of the welfare state as slow and painful as possible, a political posture that may be attractive to neither libertarian-leaning conservatives nor the populists drawn to Trump in the last presidential election.
The Tea Party came to repeal and replace Obamacare. They ended up getting repealed and replaced themselves.