The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The failure of the health-care bill saved Republicans from themselves

But can they resist the self-defeating temptations of one-party rule?

Here are the key turning points in the Republicans' fight to pass the American Health Care Act. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Andrew Harrer/The Washington Post)
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As the vote loomed last week, President Trump told members of the House Republican Caucus that if they didn’t pass the American Health Care Act, “I believe many of you will lose in 2018.” And, indeed, since the Republican House leadership was forced to abandon the bill on Friday, it’s been portrayed as a near-fatal setback for the GOP. The New York Times’s Jennifer Steinhauer colorfully wrote that the members who resisted had “landed a punch to its own party’s face.”

This analysis gets it backward. Recent history suggests that by passing — not rejecting — this conservative health-care bill, House Republicans would have made it significantly more likely that they would lose their majority in 2018. Because, as much as voters are fed up with Washington gridlock, they can be just as unhappy when one party controls Washington. Since both parties believe they can win next time around, the party out of power has every incentive to obstruct, and the party in power usually can’t resist pushing through long-desired, highly partisan legislation. Come the next election, voters frustrated with government dysfunction are inclined, once again, to throw the proverbial bums out.

Despite cries that House districts are gerrymandered to assure a Republican lock on Congress, that the rise of large pools of unregulated “dark money” advantages the GOP, or even that the clustering of liberal voters in cities along the coasts cripples Democrats in our representative system, there is no built-in Republican majority — nor is there a Democratic one. As political scientist Byron Shafer (full disclosure: my dissertation adviser two decades ago) argues in his new book, “The American Political Pattern,” what makes our current political era unique is its volatility. Consider that from 1969 to 1993, Democrats reliably controlled Congress and Republicans reliably controlled the White House. (President Jimmy Carter’s post-Watergate win being the notable and sole exception.) Yet, in the past 25 years, we have seen every possible combination of partisan control of Washington, and every president since Bill Clinton has seen his party’s total control of Washington evaporate by the midpoint of his first term.

When politics was more stable and neither party had much hope of capturing the other branch, each needed the other to get anything done. And they managed to make a lot happen: from the passage of the Clean Air Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act, to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, Consumer Products Safety Commission and the Department of Education, to the deregulation of the airline and trucking industries, as well as the passage of largest tax cuts in U.S. history.

Yet with the full entry of the South into two-party politics and the acceleration of issue activists into parties (think environmentalists on the left and evangelical Christians on the right), U.S. politics became more polarized. The Democratic Party became reliably liberal on all scores, and the Republican Party conservative. Truly moderate Republicans (like Rep. Connie Morella of Montgomery County, Md.) and truly conservative Democrats (like Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia) became virtually extinct. Today, both groups could fit in a minivan.

In the “era of partisan volatility,” the two parties are evenly matched, and there is now a good chance that come the next election, one’s party could be controlling the other branch of government. This changes the game such that the majority party has a limited window to maximize its advantage. And for the minority, the winning strategy isn’t logrolling, but log-jamming — an approach clearly on display last year when Senate Republicans refused to consider President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, instead holding out for a Republican president’s nominee. Thus, the only major legislation passed is done so without minority support — and without the ideological moderation the minority could negotiate.

Refusal to be a part of major legislative initiatives (short of must-pass funding to keep the federal government operating) began in the Clinton years. Then, the signature Omnibus Deficit Reduction Act received zero Republican votes. President George W. Bush’s 2001 tax cuts garnered just 20 Democratic House votes and six Democratic Senate ones, and his Medicare prescription drug benefit in 2003 — an issue squarely in the Democratic camp — attracted the votes of just 16 Democratic congressmen and 11 Democratic senators. By the Obama years, this trend had intensified, with the Recovery Act attracting zero House Republican votes and three Senate votes, the Dodd-Frank financial reform received just three Republican votes in each chamber, and the Affordable Care Act — after a year of hearings and negotiations — did not win the support of any Republican members.

These signature bills became high-profile examples of what voters don’t like about Washington: partisan efforts that either failed to address their main concerns or did so in a way that they didn’t like. Add to that constant obstruction, partisanship and brinkmanship — whether threatened government shutdowns, filibusters or other procedural maneuvers to gum up the works — and this generates more disgust for Congress and Washington, becoming the high-octane fuel for volatility.

Indeed, according to a fascinating and sophisticated analysis by Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan and his colleagues, Democrats who voted for the Affordable Care Act received 5.8 percentage points fewer in the 2010 midterm election than Democrats who opposed the ACA, costing Democrats enough seats to lose control of Congress. Lawmakers’ support for this controversial, much-publicized bill shifted perceptions, making Democratic proponents of health care reform seem “further to the ideological left” than their constituents, especially independents and Republicans, and voters penalized them for it.

Moreover, while spending time on this seemingly partisan project, Congress appeared not to be fulfilling its 2008 promise to fix the economy. In fact, only 10 percent of voters, according to 2010 exit polls, rated the economy positively. Anger at Washington was never clearer: 73 percent said they were angry or dissatisfied with the federal government and Congress, and according to Gallup, 77 percent of Americans disapproved of Congress. While it was the tea party that visibly led the revolt that year, it wasn’t rabid partisans that had the biggest impact. Voters with relatively weak party allegiances are the ones who tip the balance. In the 1994 House vote, independents swung 11 percentage points from the previous House election, in 2006, 15 percentage points, and in 2010, 12 percentage points.

At least until the failure of its health-care bill, the GOP appeared to be following the same pattern as other majorities with a president of their own party.

“We’re gonna come up with a new plan that’s going to be better health care for more people at a lesser cost,” Trump told ABC News in January about his plans to “repeal and replace” Obamacare. On the campaign trail, he pledged that there will be no cuts to Medicaid or Medicare. Yet the AHCA broke these pledges. Instead, the GOP tried to use its Washington dominance to fulfill long-held conservative desires such as cutting Medicaid and giving tax breaks to the wealthy. In fact, to win the support of the most conservative members of the Republican caucus, the GOP leadership added even larger cuts to benefits and higher tax cuts for those at the top. A Quinnipiac poll of voters last week found that 46 percent said that they were more likely not to vote for their member of Congress if their representative supported the AHCA.

Whether the Republicans — in Trump’s words — “move on” from health care now, the fate of their majority may depend less on whether they can get their members in line and more on whether they can resist the self-defeating temptations that come with one-party control. Based on other items at the top of their agenda, the answer may be no. The president’s proposed budget includes deep cuts that would directly affect his base — for example, the elimination of funding to programs that clean up the Great Lakes, support economic development in Appalachia, and provide financial aid to purchase heating oil in northern rural states. A coming tax revision bill undoubtedly will include more upper-income tax cuts. It’s not a stretch to envision the volatility of this era once again kicking in and, in 2018, kicking Republican members out.

This does not mean that Democrats are assured a victory in two years’ time, but once you understand the volatility in our politics and how it affects the parties, the path to victory becomes clearer: continue to oppose new initiatives and remind voters in November that Republicans are not delivering for them.

In many ways, this paints a depressing picture of American politics. The vision of Congress soberly debating bills, negotiating in good faith, and compromising over details with each other and the president seems as distant as the Continental Congress. More often than not, there are few incentives for bipartisan cooperation. That’s why we should not be surprised at what does get produced: the deeply conservative budget Trump submitted, as well as the equally conservative health care bill he enthusiastically endorsed. Nor should we be surprised when calls for a “grand compromise” between Trump and Democrats on repairing the ACA — or even a bipartisan commission to offer fixes — fall on deaf ears.

For now, Democratic obstruction makes as much sense to the left as conservative policymaking does to the right. Until we have a president with the incentives and desire to defy his or her congressional majority and voters willing to reward it, this is the politics we’re stuck with.