MacArthur’s brief and uneasy turn under the national spotlight has been telling. Exchanges from his packed forum this month in deep-blue Willingboro — mostly of supporters of the Affordable Care Act fuming about his attempts to repeal and replace the law — have been replayed endlessly on cable news.
And the centrists MacArthur once led are increasingly nervous about their reelection chances — and have groused that his eagerness to cut a deal with Freedom Caucus hard-liners is partly responsible for their vulnerability.
Meanwhile, national Democrats have put a target on his Jersey Shore district, with his swing seat widely seen as a possible pickup opportunity in 2018 as their party looks to win back the House majority.
In the interview, MacArthur placidly played down the suggestion that he has been politically bruised after working closely with the White House and conservatives to build a coalition for the Republican health-care legislation.
But the 56-year-old congressman did have sharp words for a few unnamed fellow moderates, in particular those who are irritated by his work with conservatives on a revamped bill, and said they may not want to repeal the ACA.
Q: A few weeks ago, you’re sitting at your home on Long Beach Island, putting the finishing touches on an amendment that would push the health-care bill toward passage. Now, you’re stepping away from leading the Tuesday Group. Any regrets?
A: No. I don’t regret any of my actions on the health-care bill. I saw a bill that was going to fail and I saw a way to bring it back and I did what I thought was best for the country. I don’t regret it, actually. I think part of my realization over the past few weeks is what has rankled my Tuesday Group colleagues the most is that I negotiated with the House Freedom Caucus. I’m not going to stop doing that. To me, not to work with one part of our party is ridiculous. I realized it was time for me to keep doing what I need to do and let the group move in a different direction, if that’s the way they want to go.
What was the breaking point? When did you know it was time to step down?
Eh, I just decided this weekend.
I just thought about it after things settled last week. I was able to see which members were past it and which members had a continuing problem, and I was able to think about my own priorities and how we need to govern. I realized that you can’t lead people where they don’t want to go. I led a company with thousands of people, and I learned that you can’t make people go where they don’t want to go, and I’m not going to change who I am, either.
Do you think that their unhappiness with you isn’t only because of your work with the Freedom Caucus but because you were working closely with the president?
I don’t know about that. I don’t know. I try not to read people’s minds. You’re usually wrong when you do it. So I don’t know about that. I do think the people who have struggled the most are those who voted no on the House bill. That’s part of it.
Well, I don’t think they like that I revived the bill and brought it to a vote.
So there are some Republicans who wish that the current law would stay and they would not have to vote on a repeal bill?
Yes, I think so. I think there are people who wanted the Republican bill to stay dead, who didn’t want it revived. They didn’t want to vote.
Are you saying that there is a feeling among some House Republicans that the health-care law is settled and as much as they talk about repeal, they are not eager to repeal the law?
Yes. And that sentiment is entirely wrong. I look at this with the eyes of someone who was in the insurance business for 30 years. The Affordable Care Act is an insurance system. It is completely and fatally flawed as an insurance system. There’s a death spiral, with adverse selection at a tipping point, too many people at high costs who are insured and too few with lower costs. That’s what the exchanges have become. It’s failing and will continue to fail. For those people who want to hide their head in the sand and pretend it’s all going to be okay, that’s their prerogative, but I can’t go along with that.
But politically, Congressman, do they maybe have a point? They see images from your town hall meetings and wonder if repeal is a smart play. They could be risking a backlash.
I didn’t come here to get credit. If I made decisions just on political considerations, I’d never do what needs to be done. That’s not governing. So I’m not saying I’m politically unaware. I pay attention to politics. But it’s not right to let that control your behavior. People are opposed to what we’re doing because special interests are spending millions of dollars to whip up the opposition and there are people that are afraid. But to allow paid-for opposition to whip people into a frenzy and not push back when we know the system is failing, to me that’s a failure to lead, and I don’t want to be part of that.
If the criticism of the GOP plan picks up, could moderates be swept out next year?
The way to stop that from happening is to fix the problem. Ultimately, I think the American people will judge all of us not on our words but on what we did to fix the problem. The Senate should do its part, and then we can begin to win the message war. And by the time ’18 comes around, we should be in a stronger position. We can’t sit back and pretend health care is going to fix itself.
Do you believe the Senate will pass a health bill? They aren’t rushing that process, and it’s unclear if the votes are there.
I do. I expect that the Senate will take the framework of what we sent, make some modifications and we’ll have a vote, we’ll conference it and have a resolution.
What’s your relationship like with the president these days? You’re one of the rare members of Congress who knew the Trump family before he was elected.
It’s fine [chuckles]. I haven’t spoken with him in a few weeks, but he called me about two weeks ago and thanked me. We had a nice chat.
His advisers are paying attention to you. Many Republicans wonder if your raucous town hall is a sign of what’s to come.
I don’t regret the town hall. I’m not saying it was pleasant, but I think leadership requires [that] you take people’s anger and you press forward and try to help them understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. I had staff in the back giving me the cutoff sign after 90 minutes. I chose to remain until every last person had said their piece because it was important with all of the angst, all of the anger to show my constituents that respect.
I’m still standing.