Lindsey Graham: I didn't really know what I was doing on health care, and neither did other Republicans

I missed this yesterday but it’s worth flagging belatedly, just so you’re up to speed on how seriously the GOP has taken this subject. When, collectively, you spend every day for seven years railing against the Democratic-built health-insurance system, you might think you’d also carve out a little time to ponder what sort of system will hopefully succeed it. The answer to the “repeal and replace!” battle cry has always been “replace with what?” If this account is accurate, Graham and the rest of the Senate GOP didn’t give it much thought until very recently.

Any political historians reading this? If so, question: Is this sort of hamfisted incompetence normal for parties that have been out of power and unable to legislate for eight years or is it something unique to the modern GOP? Democrats seemed to have no trouble transitioning from minority party to governing majority in 2009-10, passing the stimulus and ObamaCare, although of course they benefited from a gigantic Senate majority that allowed them to impose their will. The Republican Party right now seems qualitatively different, though. They’re a minority party unexpectedly thrust into a governing role via Trump’s upset win last fall and they seem utterly unprepared, nearly a full year later, to take advantage. My gut tells me that deep down they *want* to be a minority party, that battering the liberal governing majority with cultural grievances is far more comfortable for them and the base than finding a governing consensus among the conservative/populist/moderate mush currently in Congress.

Graham, though, said he was not alone in his lack of understanding of health care. “Nobody in our conference believes Obamacare works. It must be replaced. But until now, we didn’t know how to do it,” Graham told reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday, audio of which is posted below.

A reporter pointed out that such ignorance at this late stage is hard to understand. “You’ve been working to overhaul this for seven years. Why is this so hard?” she asked.

“Well, I’ve been doing it for about a month. I thought everybody else knew what the hell they were talking about, but apparently not,” Graham clarified, adding he had assumed “these really smart people will figure it out.”

Was it ignorance that was driving the health-care stumbles in the House and Senate or, paradoxically, a keen awareness of the country’s actual policy preferences? As much as middle America may hate and rebel against liberalism’s more aggressive cultural crusades, like forcing bakers to make a wedding cake for a gay couple or reacting with theatrical horror at people who find transgenderism weird, there’s little evidence that they want to be governed by conservative policies. That, not Lindsey Graham’s weak handle on health care, is why the GOP’s run into so much trouble on repeal-and-replace this year. The obvious way to slash premiums for middle-class consumers on the individual market was to nuke the requirement that insurers cover people with preexisting conditions, returning the industry to a traditional insurance regime. Americans love that rule, though, and Republicans knew it. At no point did they dare attempt to overturn guaranteed issue (although they tried to do an end-around it via state waivers that would have let insurers avoid community rating). The party did pursue another of its key goals, rolling back ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion, in its various draft bills and saw exceptionally dismal polling as a result. Trump got elected partly because he’s a walking talking rebuke to aggressive cultural liberalism and partly because he promised a government that would stay away from entitlement reform and be proactive in trying to make the white working class’s lives better. That’s populism in a nutshell, and it’s basically the opposite of the socially centrist fiscally conservative small-government ethos that prevails within the congressional GOP. As such, the party’s been stuck between producing bills true to its beliefs which it knew would be unpopular and bills that might have been more popular but would have undercut its small-government philosophy. It wasn’t policy ignorance, it was a lack of nerve combined with knowing that they’re mismatched ideologically even with many of their own voters.

Health care’s not the only issue where the party’s afraid to be what it claims to be, knowing how unpopular that is. A choice quote for you from today’s tax-reform battle on the Hill:

A new tax cut is emerging to rival those of the Bush years, and the deficit hawks have hardly peeped.

“It’s a great talking point when you have an administration that’s Democrat-led,” said Representative Mark Walker, Republican of North Carolina and the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a group of about 150 conservative House members. “It’s a little different now that Republicans have both houses and the administration.”

That’s not any ol’ Republican congressman. It’s the chairman of one of the most conservative caucuses in Congress. If you’re Walker, which way do you go on tax cuts? They’re bound to be popular, at least to the extent that the final product benefits the middle class and lower class; if you block them on fiscally conservative grounds, because the reduction in revenue requires offsetting spending cuts, you’ll be attacked by Trump and by Democrats. If on the other hand you bite the bullet and agree to deficits, you’re selling out the fiscal conservatism you claim to follow. This circle would be easy to square if the country were fiscally responsible and accepted the spending trade-off that comes with lower revenue (yeah, right, I know, “the tax cuts will pay for themselves by generating growth!”). But it isn’t. So the GOP is left stuck between what it thinks is right and what it knows is popular, which points to paralysis. No wonder the party itself is less popular now than it’s been in 15 years.

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