Republicans have revealed their greatest weakness

Republicans have revealed their greatest weakness

Until 1:30AM, July 28, 2017 when Sen. John McCain joined Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski in voting to kill the GOP’s latest and perhaps last meaningful attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was considered one of the most ingenious and cunning tacticians in American politics. However, his reputation and legacy as the Machiavelli of the Mason-Dixon is now in shambles as the scathing post-mortems begin to roll out of DC.

A man who spent seven long years building political power based on the premise of repealing the ACA—culminating in the Republican takeover of every branch of the federal government between 2010 and 2016— has seemingly seen that ultimate victory slip through his fingers. But that premise assumes that McConnell actually ever, truly, cared about Americans’ health care, or that under his leadership the Republican Party ever truly had anything meaningful to bring forward to the health care debate.

It should now be clear to everyone that those assumptions were dead wrong. There could never be a true healthcare policy victory for McConnell or Republicans because they were never truly fighting for healthcare: they were fighting for power.

Last week’s spectacular implosion (for now) of seven years of Republican efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act represents one of the starkest case studies in modern American history of the consequences of building political power as an end in itself, rather than as a means to achieve an actual policy goal.

A history of simplicity

For a quarter of my life, national Republicans have been campaigning—and often winning elections— on healthcare: pointing out myriad flaws and shortcomings of Democratic health care policies and promising voters that when they finally had the power to do so, they had a plan to lower premiums, increase access to care, and deliver real improvement to people’s lives. They watched Democrats get lost in the weeds of policy debates and went for the jugular, leveraging economic insecurity and fear over the dramatic changes that Obamacare brought forward to rebuild a Republican coalition left decimated only two years earlier in the twilight of the Bush years.

Nevermind that the heart of the ACA was built with policies created and trumpeted in the past by Republicans themselves, McConnell and the GOP saw the thousand-page bill as a gift: a messy, complicated policy that was weighty enough to sink vulnerable congressional Democrats at the polls if used as a weapon against them.

As an opposition party, out of power in DC, the GOP had the luxury of being able to make policy arguments that they knew would never find their way into law, but that helped them to build a political narrative they thought would resonate with voters. And so they began to unify around a single, simple frame: Repeal the bill. When Republicans wrestled control of Congress in 2014, they had already voted over 50 times to undo the ACA, knowing full well that with a Democrat in the White House that those votes would never create an actual policy result. But the narrative yielded very real political results, keeping President Obama and the Democratic Party on the defensive even as the ACA quietly began to insure millions of Americans.

McConnell seemed to intuitively see the path back to power that the passage of the ACA afforded the GOP if they stuck to the narrative. Retrospect now makes it clear, though, that behind the political calculation there was no grand plan or even a meaningful set of health care policy goals. It was simply a cynical plan to take power for its own sake, and apparently little more.

Over the course of his rise to power and this subsequent near-miss on health care repeal, it’s been made clear that McConnell has an unparalleled grasp of Senate procedure and a terrifying capacity to inflict his will on his caucus and the American people; wielding power so forcefully that he is shattering centuries of norms in the Senate. But behind those clever machinations there doesn’t seem to be much else, and no real agenda outside of his own aggrandizement. When the time came to actually put forward a coherent plan, Republicans were forced to acknowledge that the governing coalition that they had built was not even united on their core political issue. They were all political tactics and no policy strategy.

There’s a tendency in human nature to turn our opponents into boogeymen and to assume that they are smarter and more powerful than they really are, and a tendency in partisan politics to assume that the party you stand against is a monolithic juggernaut with singular goals, while your own is a chaotic and confused blob. Massive strategic failures like this healthcare debate, though, stand as a strong reminder that no party has a monopoly on dysfunction, and that having power is not the same thing as having a plan.

A time for progressive ideas

In his speech to his colleagues in the Senate following the vote, McConnell challenged the Democrats, asking “what are their ideas?” McConnell seems to forget that their main idea was the bill he just failed to repeal. Regardless though, as Democrats and progressives work to rebuild political power, it’s essential to remember that while united opposition is enough to drive an opponent out of power, it is nowhere near enough to govern. For a political coalition to survive its assumption of power, it needs to have been built around a set of principles coherent enough to be shaped into actual policies.

Thankfully, progressives looking to build consensus on how to improve the healthcare system in America shouldn’t have to look around too hard to stumble upon the century-long movement for universal healthcare that is cohering into a movement toward expanding Medicare, the most popular healthcare system in the United States. Time will tell if Democrats and their allies will be able to leverage their future power toward a meaningful improvement in people’s lives, but at the very least, the fall of Mitch McConnell provides a powerful warning for what happens when you follow the path of least resistance to political power.

Photo via Flickr/Gage Skidmore.

About author

Grady Burns
Grady Burns 44 posts

Grady Burns is an activist on issues involving young Mainers. He serves on the Auburn City Council and is president of the Maine Young Democrats.

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