No matter the congressman (or senator), no matter the crowd they were speaking to, no matter the other prevailing political winds, the party could always depend on one thing: A pledge to get rid of the Affordable Care Act would be a sure-fire applause line. And a big one.
Their base hated Obamacare with a deep and abiding passion — believing the law (and the party-line manner in which it was passed) to be indicative of everything wrong with Democratic solutions to the big problems facing the country: A big government answer that ultimately would do much more harm than good.
It’s no exaggeration to credit the Republican pledge to repeal Obamacare with the party’s current dominant status in Congress: In midterm elections of 2010 and 2014, Republicans across the country ran on the idea of getting rid of the law, tearing it out root and stem and replacing it with something better.
Early Friday morning, that promise broke up on the rocks of governing reality as three GOP senators abandoned their side — leaving a Republican Party in control of the legislative and executive branches left with this sobering reality: Repeal was dead.
The truth is the problems with repealing and replacing Obamacare became apparent months ago.
“In the 25 years that I served in the United States Congress, Republicans never, ever one time agreed on what a health care proposal should look like,” Boehner said at the time. “Not once. All this happy talk that went on in November and December and January about repeal, repeal, repeal — yeah we’ll do replace, replace — I started laughing because if you pass repeal without replace, first, anything that happens is your fault. You broke it.”
House Republicans, carrying one of their largest majorities in the last 100 years, swung and missed in their first attempt to repeal the law, caught between pleasing the party’s most conservative wing and its more moderate members. Eventually, the legislation passed — barely. President Donald Trump held a celebration ceremony at the White House, a day of smiles and high fives that glossed over the fact that the party had only barely cleared the lowest and easiest of the hurdles to replacing the health care law.
The Senate process was marked by delays. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to quick-vote a piece of legislation before the July 4 recess. When it became clear he simply didn’t have the votes, he pushed that timeline back — again and again. All the way until this week when, in a portent of things to come, Republicans had to use Vice President Mike Pence to break a tie on the motion to proceed — a procedural vote that is almost always a formality in these situations.
What made it to the Senate floor for a vote just after midnight resembled a meteor hurtling through the earth’s atmosphere — a shell of its original size and scope. Dubbed “skinny repeal,” the bill would have eliminated the employer and individual mandate — even many of the Republicans who supported the legislation insisted it was a poor solution and they were only for it so that they could move the process forward in search of better solutions.
The death blow, when it came at the hand of Sen. John McCain, was surprising — only in that it was hard to imagine that something Republicans had invested so much in would cease to exist on a random early Friday morning in July and with Republicans in control of all of Congress (and the White House).
The simple truth exposed by the stumbling and bumbling collapse of the repeal effort is this: There is a big difference between making promises as the minority party and governing as the majority party. One is easy. The other is much, much harder.
The miscalculations were many. The belief that Obamacare would remain unpopular even after its namesake left office. A certainty that despite a lack of a specific, unifying plan over the last seven years, one would suddenly emerge once Republicans seized control of Washington. Total faith in McConnell’s ability to deliver the votes even when it became clear there might not be 50 Republicans willing to vote for any sort of health care bill. An underestimation of McCain’s willingness, in the wake of a brain cancer diagnosis earlier this month, to throw over party norms and return to the maverick persona he has always cherished. Trump’ striking inability to use the carrot as opposed to the stick when attempting to persuade wavering members. And on and on and on.
There will be blame a-plenty in the wake of such a colossal failure. And rightly so. When you miss this badly, there’s never one person solely responsible for the miscalculation.
But, never lose sight of what exactly that miscalculation was: That converting campaign rhetoric to governing realities could be yadda yadda-ed. That magically, after seven years without a plan, one would emerge that everyone in the party would leap to support. And that, with total control in Congress, success was guaranteed.
Success in politics is never guaranteed. And promises made are rarely promises kept.
This is politics. And it’s a hell of a lot harder than it looks.