The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion An insipid GOP attack line just got worse

Why bother reading? It’s obvious which one is better. (Reuters/Carlos Barria)

“Obamacare was an over-complicated bill,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday afternoon, noting that the act ran “over 974 pages.”

By contrast, the new House Republican health-care plan had “far fewer pages, 123,” Spicer said. “Much smaller, much bigger,” he exclaimed, pointing to stacks of paper on a table next to his lectern. “So far we’re at 57 for the repeal plan and 66 pages for the replacement portion,” he crowed.

“Remember, half of it, 57 of those pages, are the — are the repeal part,” he repeated for emphasis. “So when you really get down to it, our plan is 66 pages long, half of what we actually even have there.”

How Trump blew it on health care

A couple things.

First, judging bills by their mere page count, particularly legislation that reforms a huge, sensitive and complex sector of the economy, has always been ridiculous — about as unfair as, say, judging a presidential candidate on the size of his hands. Size does not matter. Substance does.

Tom Price says the principles guiding the Republican effort to alter the Affordable Care Act include “affordability” and “accessibility.” (Video: Reuters)

Second, even if a bill’s size correlated with its merit, the GOP’s new proposal would fail the test. As Spicer himself notes, the bill largely refers to language already in the law, added to the federal code when Obamacare passed in 2010. It would repeal some of that preexisting text and — in the “replace” section — modify other bits. The bill is consequently unreadable, packed with references to subparagraphs and clauses written down somewhere else. Absent the previous passage of Obamacare, if Republicans had tried to create a premium-support system anything like what they have now proposed, they would have had to draft a bill much longer than 66 pages. For example, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s Empowering Patients First Act was almost four times longer. Spicer, one might suppose, believes that makes it four times worse.

Spicer’s line of attack is not new; for the better part of a decade, Republicans have excoriated Democrats for the length of their bills. But this White House has taken the superficial elements of politics to a new high — or, really, low — obsessing over appearances. When President Trump, then president-elect, announced his White House conflict-of-interest plan, he did so next to a table covered in reams of paper in manila folders. (Having more pages was good then?) When photos emerged suggesting Trump’s inauguration crowd was substantially smaller than former president Barack Obama’s, he sent Spicer out to berate the press corps, and then, according to Mike Allen, he criticized his press secretary’s delivery and attire. The Post’s Philip Rucker and Karen Tumulty reported that the president sorted candidates for his cabinet in part on whether they had “the look.”

The Republican health-care plan’s top critics? Republicans.

The country’s leaders should spend less time on frivolous details — not, as is now the case, far too much.