A tweet this week caught my eye. It was from Josh Holmes, a former top staffer to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Given that the bill is polling about as well as Vladimir Putin right now — and two Republican senators have already come out against it, meaning one more would kill the bill — I was intrigued by this argument. Why is it that Republicans would be better off passing something that’s hugely unpopular and that the Congressional Budget Office says would reduce the number of insured Americans by 20-plus million than they would be by just doing nothing?
So I asked Holmes to submit to an email exchange, which he graciously agreed to. I have to warn you all, though, that we’re both Minnesotans, so this exchange gets pretty heated at times. One of us almost says “darn.”
BLAKE: I noticed your tweet above, and I’ll confess it surprised me a little, given how unpopular this bill is polling. Overall, Americans disapproved of the previous version of this bill by either a 2-to-1 or even a 3-to-1 margin. And as I noted recently, not even Republicans seemed to be all that keen on it; just 35 percent of them approved of the bill, and only 20 percent said they would blame congressional Republicans for failing to pass the bill (versus 50 percent who would blame Democrats). So why is it that Republicans have more to lose by not passing this bill than passing it?
HOLMES: Consequential political liabilities are built upon narratives that take hold over a period of time with multiple proving points. A poll on a complex legislative issue three weeks after it is unveiled has next to no ability to pick up the lasting sentiment. Conversely, over the course of seven years, Republicans have promised to repeal and replace Obamacare and won multiple elections in large part due to that specific promise. A failure to address a conviction among the base of the Republican Party, seven years in the making, is infinitely more damaging than the ramifications of a three-week snapshot that starts well underwater because of partisan polarization. I also believe there is a cascading effect to not getting this done that could bleed into other agenda items, which would create a catastrophic narrative in the midterms if that occurred. It’s correctable if reversed with something like tax reform but it would be imperative that it be reversed in a significant and lasting way.
BLAKE: I don’t necessarily disagree with any of this. I think failing to pass a bill would be Bad for the Brand, clearly. But I also wonder if passing something that’s so unpopular — more unpopular than any piece of legislation that’s passed in a very long time, according to Axios — with so many possible negative political impacts outweighs that. Yes, these are just early polls and perhaps people haven’t fully digested what’s in this bill. And maybe the CBO is wrong that 20-plus million people will be off their health care if this passes and that premiums for older, poorer people could multiply. But if the CBO is even in the right ballpark on those, doesn’t that create devastating political ads in 2018 and 2020? Democrats paid a political price for Obamacare for several years when it was unpopular; doesn’t the GOP have to be concerned that getting this wrong could be much worse than looking like failed legislators?
HOLMES: If you can find me an election cycle where Democrats haven’t run ads accusing Republicans of throwing the poor and elderly off of health care, I’ll buy you a beer. You don’t need a CBO score to write the Democratic playbook because it’s been the same for decades. The question is whether Republicans have something to say for themselves about the opportunity voters gave them in 2016. For better or worse, with few exceptions, a newly elected president’s first midterm is a referendum on him and his agenda. The unpopularity of Obamacare was fueled by gigantic voter anxiety over TARP, the auto bailout, the stimulus and an explosion of federal government regulations. Not all of it was generated by the Obama administration, but the potency of the initial backlash over Obamacare was the culmination of all of this. The staying power of the Obamacare issue was in some part because of a united and re-energized Republican opposition, but mostly it was the disruption in coverage for the vast majority of Americans who were already insured. The failed website issues became a metaphor for the entire debacle. If the Republican bill bends the cost curve for Americans and doesn’t substantially disrupt consumers the way Obamacare did, the political ramifications will be predictably partisan.
BLAKE: One more response from me, and then I’ll give you the last word. This seems to be a compelling reason for the party AS A WHOLE to pass something. But I’m wondering if it’s as compelling to individual members — the Dean Hellers and the Rob Portmans and the Shelley Moore Capitos and the Jeff Flakes — who worry more about their own political futures and the short-term pain of supporting a very unpopular bill. With Heller facing perhaps the toughest reelection bid of any Republican, in a blue-trending swing state, would it really be better for him in 2018 to support this than oppose it? Or are you only making an argument for the party more broadly, and could you maybe understand why Heller would balk?
HOLMES: I don’t presume for a second that any Republican senator is doing anything other than evaluating the policy. If they were making a political decision, the decision is pretty simple: You cannot win an election if you do not have a base of support. The cold reality is that the phrase “President Trump’s efforts to repeal Obamacare” probably tests in the mid-90s among the Republican base right now. Even if that sentiment changes dramatically over time, the seared memory of a disappointment this significant to the Republican base has a somewhat serious chance of forever damaging Republican political careers. Compounding this problem is the very real notion that without action, the insurance markets may collapse. If that happens and a bipartisan insurance bailout materializes, conservative base voters will never, ever forget it.