David Michael Miller
Last week Republicans struggled to do what they had done so easily dozens of times in the past: pass a bill to repeal Obamacare.
But it got tricky this time because they had to make good on the “replace” part of their “repeal and replace” mantra that worked so well for them in every election since the law was passed.
Not so incredibly, it turns out that Speaker Paul Ryan and his colleagues never actually had a credible replacement plan. Ryancare was an incoherent mess trying to force a standard playbook Republican overlay on what is an essentially sound, if flawed, health care law. The upshot of Ryan’s bill would have been to eventually reverse the gains of the Affordable Care Act, throwing 24 million Americans off their insurance while massively shifting resources back to the wealthy from the poor. And it got the public support it deserved: 17 percent of Americans were for it.
Still, Ryan might have had the votes to force his bill through the House if it weren’t for our unlikely heroes, the House Freedom Caucus. This collection of 30 or so hard, hard, hard line conservatives refused to vote for the bill because it didn’t go far enough in its cruelty. They demanded something more pure, and actually more honest: a full outright repeal of Obamacare. They essentially wanted Americans’ health problems to be treated by the magic of the free market. After all, dying in the gutter from an untreated treatable illness is a beautiful expression of the invisible hand at work, culling out the weakest among us.
When the Freedom to Die Caucus held its ground, Ryan gave in and made his bill even worse. But that caused what is left of the Republican moderate caucus to start to withdraw its support. Ryan found himself in a death spiral. For every vote he picked up among the hardliners, he lost a vote among the moderates. It was actually worse than that because for all the concessions they wrung out of Ryan and President Trump, they never actually promised any votes.
There’s a lesson here for Democrats as well. First off, for those of us who wanted a single payer system, myself included, we need to realize that if a hard line Democratic caucus had demanded that back in 2009 there probably would have been no Obamacare to repeal. The debate probably would have degenerated into much the same kind of quagmire the Republicans found themselves in last week.
There is also an implication for how Democrats handle the Supreme Court nomination of Neil Gorsuch. Liberals are hopping mad about the results of the 2016 election and nothing makes them hop higher than the treatment that Merrick Garland received at the hands of the Republican majority in the Senate. Garland was eminently qualified to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, yet Republicans would not so much as allow him a public hearing. It wasn’t his qualifications that were in question but the fact that a liberal president had done what his election had empowered him to do: nominate a qualified jurist who he hoped might make rulings from a generally liberal point of view.
Now the situation is reversed. In a rare move of sanity, President Trump has nominated Gorsuch, who is by all accounts an intelligent man of good character and temperament. He, like Garland, is eminently qualified for the job, though he is likely to make rulings that conservatives like.
I am willing to bet that most Americans support a basic standard of fairness here. A president gets to nominate a person that he believes will generally rule in favor of things he likes so long as that person meets high standards of intelligence, integrity and temperament. That’s why the Republicans should have approved Garland and it’s why Democrats shouldn’t stand in the way of Gorsuch.
But last week Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer announced that they would do just that. He threw down the gauntlet, announcing that his party would filibuster and force the Republicans to try to pick off eight Democrats to end it and allow a vote.
This, in turn, could force Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (pressured by the hardliners in his own caucus) to push the button on the nuclear option, ending an ages old tradition of allowing filibusters for high court nominees. That, of course, will come back to haunt Republicans when the Democrats take back the presidency and legislative majorities as they will some day. And if Trump and Ryan continue on their current path that could happen sooner than anyone had thought.
But this is a case where the process is actually more important than the outcome. If the 60-vote-majority requirement is eliminated it will destroy for all time the notion that a person being given a lifetime appointment to affect the lives of all Americans should at least be approved with a super-majority of elected senators.
This time it’s hard liners on the Democratic side who are forcing the country toward a bad decision. Of course liberals have every reason to be incensed about the Garland situation, but the answer isn’t to further demean our historically sound institutions.
What we need right now at the national, state and local levels is a greater spirit of compromise and an acknowledgement that whoever might be up today is almost assuredly going to be down tomorrow. Whether liberal or conservative, the hard line is almost always the wrong line.