Back in the euphoric days of January, all good things were possible. The Republican House and Senate would promptly repeal and replace Obamacare, soon to be followed by tax reform. A parade of jurists acceptable to the Heritage Foundation lay in wait for quick appointment and approval to district and appellate courts across the land. The optimists on the fiscal conservative Right even saw the possibility of making Social Security and Medicare sustainable, and returning to the days of Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich when budgets were balanced. Harry Reid had given the gift of simple majorities empowered to approve all appointees below the Supreme Court. “Reconciliation” could whisk most bills through the legislature without a blocking requirement of 60 votes in the Senate. President Trump would have many signing pens to give as mementos. Success depended only on Paul Ryan’s ability to keep the Freedom Caucus from demanding ideological purity. That was then.
Who would have thought that the problem would be the Senate? Wiley old Mitch McConnell had won his gamble of not allowing a vote on Merrick Garland for Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court seat ultimately taken by conservative darling Neil Gorsuch. The Republicans who had to defend 24 seats to the Democrats 10 in the 2016 election had surprisingly held all but two. Certainly a few Democrats like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Jon Tester of Montana, and Joe Donnelly of Indiana could be relied on when needed. What went wrong?
– First, the failure of Repeal and Replace, or Repeal then Replace, or just Repeal is not a repudiation of President Trump. Trump-haters in both parties will try to pin it on him, but Healthcare is not his issue; he would have taken anything.
– Most importantly, Mitch McConnell has not been able to turn from being an effective opposition leader, capable of impeding the Obama agenda by a masterful use of Senate procedures and encouragement of unified opposition. It was easy to get Rand Paul to shout “NO” when that was the Republican game plan. It is more difficult to get him to stop shouting “NO” when the Republican agenda is on the table. McConnell agreed to the overall strategy of putting Obamacare – a frontal assault on the cornerstone of the Obama presidency – ahead of tax reform or an infrastructure bill, either of which might have drawn some Democratic support. With 30 years in the Senate before becoming Majority Leader in 2015, he knows the pecadillos of all of the players in the 100 member club. He was central to drafting the Senate version. He was responsible for the necessary sausage making. He was shown to be wanting.
– When faced with the choice between party, constituents, and their own vision of a perfect world, a disappointing group demonstrated that they could not make the transition from opposition to governing by supporting the party on the most momentous vote of this presidential cycle – Susan Collins of Maine, Mike Lee of Utah, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Rand Paul of Kentucky. Several with reservations understood the importance of supporting the party and would likely have voted for the last gasp – Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, John McCain of Arizona. Ted Cruz earned his stripes with his amendment to allow sale of low cost/low benefit insurance policies. The rest of the party leadership were AWOL – Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas and Health Committee Chair Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. New leadership is needed – preferably somebody who has not burned all of their bridges to the Democratic side of the aisle.
– Obama and Pelosi were right: With seven years to take root, it is nearly impossible to take back an entitlement. Unless it falls of its own weight.
So, where do the Republicans go from here?
– There should be a recognition that the work of the Senate goes deeper than Obamacare. McConnell did manage to get all of President Trump’s cabinet nominees approved – six by margins of three to five votes – but the pace was agonizingly slow in the White House and the Senate, and many secondary positions are yet unfilled. Fortunately, Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley of Iowa is committed to aggressively filling the hundred plus district and appeals court vacancies which Trump inherited – with qualified conservative justices; with or without timely recommendations by the liberal American Bar Association; limiting the traditional “blue slip” veto power of home state senators; and requiring only 51 votes, thanks to the rules which Harry Reid established in 2013.
– There must be a recognition that comprehensive legislation which changes the direction of society requires an element of bipartisan agreement. Part of the failure of Obamacare stems from an unwillingness of Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid to compromise with Republicans, creating both unworkable features, and a bitterly hostile opposition. Likewise Repeal and Replace. Some like governor John Kasich have proposals which could garner bipartisan support, and might actually help people.
– Some accomplishments are necessary before attention turns to the 2018 elections. (Actually, potential candidates are making their judgments based on what they see today.) The math in the Senate remains overwhelmingly favorable for the Republicans – of the 33 seats up for election, 23 are Democrats; 10 of the Democrats are in states carried by Trump; virtually all of the Republicans are expected to run for re-election. It would be nice to have a new leader for the class of ’18.
– And in the shorter term the Republicans will have their margin trimmed to 51-48 until John McCain returns or Republican Arizona Governor Doug Ducey names a replacement. Pray for the best; plan for the worst.
Optimists would say that strength and wisdom come from adversity. This is a learning moment.