Opinion

Opinion

On healthcare, GOP loss could be a win

Posted June 25

This week a huge vote is expected on Capitol Hill, where the Senate is set to act on its version of the health care plan unveiled last week by Sen. Mitch McConnell. The plan modifies the House bill, but not by much. It is a tough piece of legislation that would severely undercut President Barack Obama's health care regulations and roll back the expansion of Medicaid that provided millions of Americans with insurance.

The odds seem minimal that the bill will pass in its current form. Several senators, on the right and the center, immediately voiced their opposition to McConnell's work. Republicans only have a slim 52 majority to work with.

And if they manage to pass a bill this week, Senate Republicans will still need to work out a compromise with the House in conference committee. Freedom Caucus Republicans have shown little appetite for compromise. A group of Republican governors, including Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada, are pressuring their legislators in Washington to oppose the measure.

Nor is it clear that President Donald Trump has the political wherewithal to whip up the vote. So in the coming weeks, defeat is a very distinct possibility.

Such an outcome could be a blessing in disguise for the President and his party. There are many ways that passage of this legislation could be a political disaster for the Republicans, even if they have been clamoring for reform since 2011.

The final version of the bill would be unlikely to satisfy anyone. Conservatives will cry that the bill left too much of the Affordable Care Act in place, betraying a key promise from the 2016 campaign, while moderates will feel that any version of the legislation is too harsh.

Democrats will be energized by the millions of Americans who will be livid with the party that caused them to lose their health care coverage or left them with worse insurance. Polls have shown that the Republicans' House bill is very unpopular with the public -- an NBC News and Wall Street Journal poll found only 16% of Americans believed the bill to be a good idea, and 48% said they disapproved of it.

But if the bill goes down to defeat, unhappiness with the existing health care system will still be directed toward the GOP. To counter this, President Trump and the GOP could move on to more popular issues, like cutting income taxes, and say that for now they can't dive back into the quagmire of health care.

And Democrats will lose an issue that has animated them and been very effective at garnering grassroots fervor.

There is a precedent for a loss helping a President and party move on to greener political grasses. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan took on Social Security. Many Republicans, including the President, had argued for years that the New Deal program was too costly and too generous with elderly Americans who didn't need the money.

Fresh off his stunning victory over President Jimmy Carter, President Reagan put forward a proposal to reduce benefits for early retirees. The proposal constituted the largest cut in the program since Congress created Social Security in 1935.

Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill and the Democrats pounced on the idea, with O'Neill calling it a "despicable" thing to do to elderly Americans. They argued the proposal revealed how cold-hearted Republicans really were and that beneath Reagan's charismatic smile was a tough right-winger determined to dismantle the social safety net. Florida Democrat Claude Pepper called the idea "insidious" and "cruel."

Liberal organizations mobilized against the proposed cuts and by 1982 the proposal was dead. Social Security came to be known as a "third rail" of politics -- touch it and you die. Reagan would not try to privatize or cut the program again. Indeed, in 1983 Reagan worked with Democrats to shore up the program's finances so that it would be on sound footing for years to come.

Although the vehemence of the opposition was part of the reason Democrats did well in the midterm elections and increased their House majority, the defeat allowed Reagan to get away from trying to cut or privatize the program again. Instead, Reagan could keep his attention on pushing for higher defense spending and taking on communists while enjoying the electoral boost that came when the economy started to recover from the malaise of the 1970s.

Reagan soundly defeated Walter Mondale in the 1984 election and went on to sign a historic arms agreement with the Soviet Union in 1987 that has defined his legacy.

Today Republicans might be facing a similar situation. President Trump, who has never been particularly invested in health care policy, will be happy to drop that issue so he can go on to deregulating and cutting taxes -- issues nearer and dearer to his heart. According to the New York Times, McConnell also is much more interested in tackling taxes than dealing with healthcare.

Ironically, as in 1983 with Social Security, this could create an opportunity for Trump and the GOP to strengthen the Affordable Care Act, eventually allowing them to take credit for the program if it works better.

President Trump and the GOP can say they tried to repeal Obamacare and blame obstructionist Democrats for the loss. This could be their theme on Twitter for weeks.

Everything will become a bit clearer when the Senate takes its vote. Who knows? Maybe this has been Sen. McConnell's real play from the start -- let the bill die of its own weight so that Republicans can finally start to govern.

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