When I say “GOP moderates,” that includes the moderate-in-chief.
It’s not just moderates. Ted Poe, a member of the Freedom Caucus, resigned yesterday, saying, “Saying no is easy, leading is hard, but that is what we were elected to do. Leaving this caucus will allow me to be a more effective member of Congress and advocate for the people of Texas. It is time to lead.” Poe was a yes on the bill and thinks it’s time for the FC to shift from its obstructionist bent during the Obama era to a more compromising posture under Trump.
Alyssa Farah, spokesman for the Caucus, responded ably to the charges on Twitter this morning with two core points. One: There were lots of moderates in the House against the bill too. They just didn’t have the stones to put their names to their opposition the way Mark Meadows and his allies did. Two: Er, by every account, the bill was hugely unpopular and was getting less popular as the vote drew near. The last Quinnipiac poll taken before it was pulled had it at 17/56, 10-15 points below what HillaryCare and ObamaCare polled and each of those bills led to enormous midterm losses in the House. I don’t think I saw a single wonk, left or right, on Friday claim that passing the bill would have been a better outcome politically for the GOP at this point than tanking it would. For cripes’ sake, House Republicans were so nervous about the fallout that Paul Ryan reportedly was reduced to begging them on his knees to support it. All of which being so, didn’t the Freedom Caucus sort of do the party a favor by sinking the bill?
For all the hype about Trump potentially threatening to encourage primary challenges to Freedom Caucus opponents, Mark Meadows’s district seems to be taking his opposition to the bill jussssst fine.
Beyond all of that, let’s be real: Beating up on the Freedom Caucus is a convenient way to excuse Trump for his pitifully poor salesmanship on the bill’s behalf. If you want to lay ultimate blame for failure on Paul Ryan as the main author of the bill, okay, but it was apparent to House Republicans from the beginning that “Their heart was not in the healthcare battle,” referring to the White House. If Trump read the bill or even attempted to master its basic details in order to make an informed case to the public, there’s no evidence of it; his interviews on it were the standard brew of vague Trumpy hyperbole about how “terrific” everything would be after it passed, contrary to all available evidence. At one meeting, pressed by members of the Freedom Caucus on key policy points, Trump reportedly replied, “Forget about the little sh*t. Let’s focus on the big picture here.” The “little sh*t,” in this case, was the guts of a bill that would, if enacted, end up remaking one-sixth of the U.S. economy. With Trump only half-interested in the process and seemingly not at all interested in the substance, it fell to Ryan, Tom Price, and Mick Mulvaney, all of whom have a small fraction of Trump’s visibility and an even smaller fraction of the Republican base’s loyalty, to try to sell it, which is why it was so easy for Trumpers to turn against the bill as “RyanCare.” And then, faced with a major setback on Friday, Trump threw in the towel immediately rather than press on as Obama and Pelosi did for months during the ObamaCare process.
To top it all off, at the eleventh hour Steve Bannon reportedly swooped in and told the Freedom Caucus at a meeting, “This is not a discussion. This is not a debate. You have no choice but to vote for this bill.” Issuing ultimatums to congressmen is an … interesting means of persuasion. As it turned out, the bill was dead 24 hours later. Warren Henry has an interesting theory about that:
I believe the 2016 campaign taught Trump that one can win by framing the final decision as a binary choice and bullying people into accepting the marginally lesser of two evils. I believe he also learned that one can be elected President without having to know much of anything about policy. These two beliefs made for a particularly toxic combination when it comes to passing legislation more complex than, say “build a wall.”
The fact is that the House GOP caucus refused to accept that healthcare reform was a binary choice between AHCA and ACA, probably in part because House leadership had already abandoned a first draft of AHCA. Moreover, most of the House GOP Congress has been around long enough to know their majority derives in large part from the Democrats having to own Obamacare, both its cramdown and its consequences; many Representatives owe their current careers to it.
The notion that Trump, Stephen Bannon & Co. were going to ask them to condense a cramdown into 18 days on a bill that had no constituency was a pipe dream. The idea that they were going to demand that elected officials — many of whom outpolled Trump in their districts — simply rubber-stamp a bill as instantly unpopular as ACHA was madness.
“It’s this or the Democratic agenda” worked on Republican voters in November. On a group of true-believing conservatives, who had already passed clean repeal bills literally dozens of time in the House in the previous four years and who were eager to flex their muscle in a test of wills with Trump, it doesn’t work so well.
If you want to come after the Freedom Caucus, come after them for this: Would their changes to the bill, if enacted, have made it more or less popular? It’s fine to back-slap them for having blocked a piece of legislation that would have done major damage to the GOP in the midterms, but it’s worth asking how a bill tailored to conservative concerns might have fared instead. That Quinnipiac poll that showed the bill polling at 17/56 also showed the idea of cutting Medicaid polling at 22/74. Yet it was conservatives, remember, who convinced Trump to speed up the Medicaid rollback in the bill from 2020 to 2018. Another key ask of conservatives, most notably Rand Paul in the Senate, was to make tax credits under the bill nonrefundable, meaning that only people who pay federal income tax would qualify for them. If you’re poor enough to have no federal income tax liability but well off enough not to qualify for Medicaid, you’d be in a jam. The Freedom Caucus also wanted ObamaCare’s “essential health benefits” regulations repealed as part of the House bill, a demand with good intentions — with those requirements lifted, insurers would be able to offer a greater variety of plans with lower premiums for some — but one which would have been difficult to sell politically and would have made it harder to pay for coverage of people with preexisting conditions. All of which is to say, a conservative health care bill might have been a better health care bill in many ways than ObamaCare or TrumpCare, but it also might have been an even heavier political albatross around the GOP in 2018. If you’re going to credit them with having helped the party avoid electoral catastrophe, considering their preferred alternative seems like it should be part of the political equation too.
But all of that is past now. Trump’s task, and Ryan’s task, and the task of Ted Poe, Adam Kinzinger, Mike Turner, and other Freedom-Caucus-bashers, is how far you want to go now to antagonize the group. Before you excommunicate them from the party, you’d better be sure you have 30-odd Democratic votes waiting in the wings somewhere to replace the fiscal conservatives on things like tax reform and infrastructure. Are Kinzinger et al. even trying to form a “centrist” caucus with Democrats to counter the FC?