October 19, 2018 | Reading Time: 6 minutes

On Health Care, Republicans Can’t Run from the Past

“Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye."

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You may have noticed Mitch McConnell’s unforced error this week. He said the national debt, which has ballooned to levels unseen in six years, is not due to the GOP tax cuts. It’s due to “entitlements,” like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Worse, he refused to take responsibility for something he and his party are entirely responsible for. “It’s not a Republican problem,” McConnell said. “It’s a bipartisan problem: unwillingness to address the real drivers of the debt by doing anything to adjust those programs to the demographics of America in the future.”

In other words, the answer to our looming fiscal disaster isn’t making hard choices about expenditures and revenues. It’s cutting, and cutting, things Americans really are entitled to. That, and trying, again, to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

I’m not sure why McConnell is saying any of this, but it’s worth pondering.

Perhaps he’s trying to fire up the GOP base before the midterms with the old promise of eliminating Obamacare. Perhaps he thinks Democratic control of the House is a foregone conclusion (and all indicators are indeed pointing strongly in that direction). Perhaps, he doesn’t know what workaday Americans are thinking about. Perhaps, making matters worse, he actually believes his party’s political rhetoric. I don’t know, but there are two things these midterms are about: the president and health care.

The latter, first.

Despite everything that’s going on—yes, that’s a lot—the most important policy at the top of voters’ minds right now is health care, according to a study just released by the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political advertising. By far, this year’s dominant theme has been health care. By far, the beneficiary is the Democrats. “Although both parties are mentioning health care, the topic is most prominent in ads supporting Democrats, appearing in 54.5 percent of pro-Democratic airings,” it said.

This is a reversal from the past.

After the Democratic Party rammed through the Affordable Care Act in 2010, Democratic incumbents ran away from it in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Meanwhile, the Republicans spent heavily, attacking the law and legislators who brought “government-run” health care to America. (It’s not “government-run,” but that sounds scary to a lot of people.) Now, it’s the Democrats who are on the offensive.

The Republicans, on the other hand, are in a corner. They ran and ran, and ran and ran, against Obamacare, vowing to repeal it “root and branch.” Since then, the law has grown in popularity, and they don’t have a policy platform to stand on. They have resorted to lying, and that might work. Joshua Green reported that an internal poll commissioned by the Republican National Committee recommended deceit.

That’s why the president is saying things like this:

Lying might work if there were enough time, but there’s only three weeks until Election Day. Meanwhile, the Republicans had six years to ingrain in the minds of Americans that the GOP opposes Obamacare, including its ban on discriminating against the sick and dying. Now here comes Mitch McConnell saying Republican attorneys general were darn right to sue Barack Obama to stop the ban on pre-existing conditions, and you know what else? We’re going to try privatizing Medicare again. Sure, it didn’t work for George W. Bush, but look at all this debt we got.

The Democrats won’t let voters forget. Indeed, their initial reaction, on the day House Republicans rammed through their version of Obamacare repeal, appears prescient. After the Republicans applauded their victory in 2017, the Democrats taunted them the way they were taunted after voting for President Clinton’s tax hike in the 1990s. Just as raising taxes delivered a Republican House majority in 1994, trying to kill off Obamacare is probably going to deliver a Democratic House majority in 2018.

Which brings me back to the president, the other great theme of 2018. The same internal RNC poll found that for better or for worse, like it or not, this year’s midterm elections are about how the American people feel about Donald Trump. (The image above and below are courtesy of Green and Businessweek.) Given Trump ran on repealing Obamacare, as every Republican did before him, voters aren’t likely to believe it when he says, falsely, that the Democrats are coming for their Medicare.

Which puts the president in a pickle. A potential pickle.

If Trump loses the House, and as I said, all indicators point strongly in that director, there’s a real possibility, not to say a real probability, that someone in the Republican Party is going to challenge him for 2020. So far, there are actual and imagined incentives to stand with the president, wrote Jon Bernstein. But after Nov. 6:

“they all could be gone, and there’s no real Republican legislative agenda anyway. But if Republicans lose their House majority they will have to play defense for the next two years, and that takes far less coordination and therefore less of a reason to prop up the president. Any benefit of the doubt enjoyed by a new president will be gone. And so, if Republicans do badly, most or all of any remaining belief in Trump’s magic will be gone.”

The Trump agenda began with health care.

It could end with health care, too.

So much depends on intellectual dishonesty

Among the cabal of Washington insiders known as Never Trump conservatives, there are honest intellectuals like Max Boot. But they are rare exceptions.

Mostly, you have smart people living in the GOP’s orbit who can tell when allegiance to Donald Trump is a social liability, and when it’s not. But then there are moments when they reveal themselves for what they are. Hugh Hewitt did that today.

Here’s the thing. The party of Reagan is no more. The party of Reagan wasn’t all that great, but it was better than what we have now. That nuance, however, is hard to see, because for people Hewitt, so much depends on intellectual dishonesty.

Here are the facts, per the Post today: “A cadre of conservative House lawmakers is fueling false reports depicting the missing Saudi journalist as allied with Middle Eastern terrorists.” The paper’s Robert Costa and Karoun Demirjian wrote:

In recent days, a cadre of conservative House Republicans allied with Trump has been privately exchanging articles from right-wing outlets that fuel suspicion of [Jamal] Khashoggi, highlighting his association with the Muslim Brotherhood in his youth and raising conspiratorial questions about his work decades ago as an embedded reporter covering Osama bin Laden, according to four GOP officials involved in the discussions who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Those aspersions—which many lawmakers have been wary of stating publicly because of the political risks of doing so—have begun to flare into public view as conservative media outlets have amplified the claims, which are aimed in part at protecting Trump as he works to preserve the U.S.-Saudi relationship and avoid confronting the Saudis on human rights.

Again: so much depends on intellectual dishonesty.

Like a reputation as a principled conservative.

Letter to the editor

Re “The Khashoggi Story Isn’t Only about Human Rights”

Trump’s opponents should be framing this issue not in terms of human rights violations or emoluments—all of which will fall on deaf ears among Trump supporters—but in terms of protection. How much protection does any American have overseas from this administration?

That’s the key issue. If, in such an obvious case, the United States cannot even “appear” to protect its citizens, how can—or should—citizens travel abroad when their protection from state-sanctioned malfeasance can be bought by the violator?

That, to me, is the most salient argument for the voting public.

In case you missed it

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Conflict Now, Civility Later
Conflict is natural when one political order is slowly giving way to another.

A New Order Struggles to Emerge
But it won’t as long as the country is in the grip of gerontocracy.

The Khashoggi Story Isn’t Only about Human Rights. It’s about Emoluments, Too.
Now would be a good time to see President Donald Trump’s tax returns.

Will Trump Side with a Cold-Blooded Killer?
In a way, we’re going to see a repeat of Helsinki before the midterms.

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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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