That make ambition virtue! O, farewell!” – Othello
Republicans lost, big league. On the one solid promise they’ve repeated ad nauseam for seven years and running, the party of Reagan came up short.
The Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, is here to stay. Congressional Republicans, despite a million vows to the contrary, failed to repeal it. Disagreement within the ranks proved too much; members couldn’t find a way to reconcile their rhetoric with practice.
Ironically enough, the man who gave a brief flicker of hope to Obamacare opponents was the same who snuffed it out: Senator John McCain.
Recently diagnosed with glioblastoma, McCain returned to Washington in time to vote for the motion to proceed with debate on a possible repeal package. In the wee hours of Friday morning, he cast the deciding “nay” vote on what was marketed as “skinny repeal,” an amendment to abolish some of the worst parts of Obamacare, including the individual mandate.
Just like that, McCain went from Senate savior to Judas Iscariot. In a press statement, the Arizona senator expressed concern that, despite Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s assurances, the amendment would be immediately passed by the House and sent to President Trump’s desk. McCain was far from the only senator to voice reserve over this prospect.
McCain’s objection gets to the absurdity of the whole repeal effort: Republicans, failing to pass out an outright Obamacare repeal, were willing to pass a bill they openly hoped would not become law, but would only go to conference with the House and emerge as new legislation entirely.
The McCain gambit demonstrated just how out of sync the Republican strategy on reforming health care is. It was so bad that Politico copy-editors wrote the headline “Senate Republicans hope their own Obamacare repeal won’t become law” and weren’t inaccurate. The desperation to pass something, anything, is lawmaking at its most juvenile.
As one Twitter observer put it, “McCain voted NO so other GOP Sens who shared his view could vote YES last night to let them save face w/conservative base voters.” I can’t think of a more apt description.
The Republicans’ failure of vision and action leaves Obamacare the little law that could. Through multiple court challenges, numerous elections, and a totally united opposition government threatening to extirpate it for good, President Obama’s crowning achievement remains.
Now, every American who cast a GOP ballot in the hopes of de-socializing health care is shaking their head at this shameful acquiescence. Republicans deserve their scorn, but those casting blame are not entirely innocent. Culpability rests on both sides of the aisle: Voters should have never expected a clean and easy slicing away at an entitlement program. And, more so, GOP candidates should have never portrayed the effort as a cinch.
But even while entitlements may be a dependency-causing drug, Republicans still managed to squander what was a stars-aligned opportunity. Coming away from November with full control of Congress and the White House created an imperative to act. Premiums have steadily increased under Obamacare since its inception. The government-run exchanges are a mess, with insurers abandoning them faster than the Titanic. Iowa only has one insurer, Medica, operating on the state exchange. States like Arizona (McCain’s home state!) only have a few insurers. An analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that by the end of 2017, one third of U.S. counties will have only one insurer.
Price and availability statistics provide ample reason for reform. But Republicans were helped by something more: A prime example of the dangers of government-administered health care. The heart-wrenching case of little Charlie Gard made world headlines by putting the cruelty of Britain’s National Health Service on full display. Charlie was diagnosed with encephalomyopathic mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome, which left him unable to breathe on his own while slowly destroying his organs. Gard’s parents wanted to seek experimental treatment in America, but the hospital refused to release their child.
Charlie was taken off life support the day of the failed Obamacare repeal vote, drawing his last breath shortly after. At the end, the hospital even denied the parents’ request to take Charlie home so he could live his last few moments away from the sterile ward walls.
While propriety says children shouldn’t be political props, the Gard story was impossible to escape. And even with its sad ending as a backdrop, Republicans still couldn’t muster the will to undo America’s largest entitlement program since Medicare.
Conservative commentators are at a loss to explain how Republicans could bungle such a huge opportunity. The answer, though, is easy, but it’s not an easy one to face for those who derive an income from drafting talking points.
Many of Obamacare’s main aspects were Republican-devised and first implemented by a Republican governor. As Matthew Walther writes, Obamacare is, at its heart, a “plan devised by the Heritage Foundation in the ’90s that is messy but not ipso facto unacceptable. The only problem is that it was passed by a guy with a D behind his name.”
Republicans were never going to repeal a Republican health care plan. For all their talk of free-markets, the last thing any GOP politicians will do is support an entirely unfettered marketplace in any service. Like it or not, Obamacare is a midway point between wholly private enterprise and a single-payer, government-run health care system.
Does this failure mean the Republican Party is finished? Surely, seven years of a failed promise will spell doom at the ballot box, right?
Hardly. A new Gallup poll shows that, for the first time ever, Obamacare has majority support from Americans. In a revealing New York Times dispatch from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, rural Trump-backers have come to terms with Obamacare. “As much as I was against it,” said one fiscally conservative voter, “at this point I’m against the repeal.” One restaurant owner commented, “I can’t even remember why I opposed it.”
Come 2018, it’s hard to see amnesia’s muddying effect dissipating.