Today, Republicans in the House are planning to pass a bill repealing the Affordable Care Act, which according to CNN’s count is the 62nd time they’ve had such a vote. The president will of course veto the bill, but as Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy puts it, that’s the goal: “With this bill, we will force President Obama to show the American people where he stands.”
At last, the American public will finally learn whether Barack Obama supports Obamacare. Your days of keeping the public in the dark about this are over, Mr. President! Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Heritage Action, which exists to enforce conservative purity, has this to say about Congressional Republicans: “Now, we have some reason to believe they will actually deliver on that promise” to repeal the law. Because the first 61 votes left things in doubt.
It’s hard not to mock. But it opens a window on what new Speaker Paul Ryan is really up to. He has a tricky balancing act to achieve, and he’s already sacrificed his own personal popularity in order to do it. But so far it seems to be working.
Ryan’s single most important objective is to keep his House from doing anything over the course of the next eleven months that will make it less likely that a Republican wins the presidential race. Because if the GOP nominee prevails, with Congress still in Republican control they’ll be able to have anything and everything they want — tax cuts for the wealthy, slashing the safety net, more military spending, making abortion all but illegal, maybe another war or two, and yes, actually repealing Obamacare.
But the more visibly radical Congress is, the less likely that outcome becomes. Minimizing that visible radicalism means no government shutdowns, no default crises, and as little screaming and yelling from the party’s right wing as possible. Which is why Ryan engineered the passage of a budget three weeks ago that didn’t give conservatives much of what they wanted, but succeeded in removing the possibility of more budget crises in the near future.
The tricky part is that in order for Ryan to keep his party’s right wing relatively quiet, he has to throw them the occasional bone. But every time he does so he risks showing the general electorate that Republicans want to do some extreme and unpopular things, like defunding Planned Parenthood (which today’s bill also does). That might explain why he’s having this vote now — during a busy week in the presidential campaign. With everyone back from the holiday and a lot of news being made, another Obamacare vote won’t attract much notice. Ryan may say that he wants the House to be an “ideas factory” that shows Americans what Republicans will do when they have the chance to govern without the encumbrance of a Democratic president, but what he probably wants more than anything is to get the ideas ready while keeping the unpopular ones he has to hold votes on (and there will be plenty of them) from getting too much public notice.
Ryan’s balancing act depends on the right wingers in the House being placated, and so far they are. That tells us one of two things about them: Either they’re smart enough to realize they’re a liability to the national party and they serve their own long-term ideological interests by keeping a low profile, or they’re so dumb they don’t realize they’re being played, and they think that getting to vote on Obamacare repeal for the 62nd time is actually some kind of meaningful victory.
Whether Ryan’s strategy succeeds or not, in the short term he’s certainly taken one for the team. As Kathy Frankovic of YouGov recently explained, Ryan’s popularity among Republican voters has plummeted since he became Speaker, falling from 69 percent to 46 percent just since November. Seventy-one percent of them see him as someone who compromises to get things done, which among Republicans these days is just short of saying he’s some kind of commie. Things have gotten so bad that some conservatives charged that his (since shaven) beard was evidence that Ryan was a secret Muslim, just like you-know-who.
It’s certainly possible that at some point in the future Ryan could regain his esteem among the Republican base. He can take solace by dreaming of the day when he stands smiling behind a Republican president signing into law the privatization of Medicare he has advocated for so long. But in the meantime, Ryan is willing to withstand the displeasure of the party’s voters, if he can keep the extremists they elected to Congress from making too much trouble. If all it takes is a few more Obamacare repeal votes, it just might work.