We’ve been gorging on the travails of Donald Trump and the Republicans. When a president and his own governing party step in so many cowpats in so brief a period of time, it’s hard to avert your gaze. What’s next? Mitch McConnell’s drops his trousers on the steps of Congress?
That happened already, of course. The humiliation that was the Senate rebuke in the wee hours of Friday to McConnell’s last-gasp effort to kill the Affordable Care Act – or Obamacare – can’t be overstated. A majority leader just doesn’t ask for a floor vote unless he knows how it will turn out. Not at 1.30am. Not when half the land has stayed awake to watch. Not when the thing you’re trying to do has been the sole obsession of your party for nigh on eight years.
But let’s give some due to the Democrats, who have almost been forgotten in all of this. “It’s been a long, long road. I suggest we turn the page,” Chuck Schumer, the Minority leader, offered minutes after McConnell’s so-called “Skinny Bill” at least to unwind parts of Obamacare fell to defeat. If the senator from New York was looking smug, you could hardly blame him.
Hillary Clinton wins! That was the headline we thought we were going to be reading last November. But maybe now she does. The one thing that most terrified her supporters about the unthinkable occurring – complete Republican control of Washington – was that the only really big thing Democrats had done in eight years with Barack Obama at the top would be destroyed.
Obamacare, an attempt at last to bring a kind of universal health coverage to the last country in the developed world not to have it, was, Clinton declared, “one of the great accomplishments not only of this president, but of the Democratic Party going back to Harry Truman”.
Call it a vicarious victory for Clinton, at least. It comes thanks to Schumer who warned colleagues in January that Republicans would try to pick them off one by one in their quest to kill the health law. Only by sticking together would they thwart them. This wasn’t going to be easy. The Democrats are no more ideologically homogeneous than the Republicans are, ranging from Bernie Sanders on the left to Joe Manchin of West Virginia to the centre. But they did it.
They also coordinated with a fearsome army of grass-roots resisters, including groups like MoveOn.org, Indivisible and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. Relations were sometimes tense, the anti-Trump factions not always convinced the Senate Democrats would stay strong. Indeed, Schumer was not always as obstructive on the Hill as they wanted. But his strategy of more constructive resistance – he allowed members to talk to Republicans about improving Obamacare but never, ever about repealing it outright – worked. Instead of Republicans exploiting Democrat disunity, it was Democrats who exploited their’s.
All the while, a group of former Obama aides who had been at ground zero of passing the Affordable Care Act and then shielding it from various assaults had come quietly come out of retirement to form a third front. Called Protect Our Care, the group included Kathleen Sebelius, Obama’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, who was plotting a month-long, nationwide bus tour to pressure Republicans not to dump Obamacare. That won’t be necessary now. As the New York Times reported this week, Leslie Dach, one of Obama’s top health care officials, meanwhile ran a war room in Washington also helping to coordinate the grass-roots resistance.
What they did was win the propaganda war. The White House and congressional Republicans continued to pedal the notion that Obamacare was a catastrophe. Americans couldn’t use the doctors they wanted, faced stiff fines if they ignored the law’s requirement that every America buy insurance and sometimes lost coverage anyway because of soaring premiums. Elements of the message were true – premiums are rising fast. But the momentum was shifting to the Democrats. The greatest of ironies is this: Obamacare was never as popular when Obama was president as it is now, with more than 50 per cent of Americans now saying they’d like to keep it. It didn’t hurt that with every new Republican proposal so came a new forecast from the Congressional Budget Office of how many Americans would lose coverage as a result. 26 million. 23 million. 16 million.
Republicans sometimes have the easier job of getting their message across just because it is so simple: government intrusion is bad. Taxes are bad. Freedom to choose is good, and so forth. But all that is only so much ideological guff when policy decisions actually impact directly on people’s lives. Even Trump voters started to see through it. If you are poor and live in one of the 33 states that accepted a massive expansion of Medicaid benefits that was allowable under Obamacare, they were always going to ask what will happen to them if those benefits are erased.
Republicans should have grasped that once new benefits are given, there is no taking them away. The watered-down Skinny Bill was a nonsense, because it sought to leave the good bits of Obamacare intact while taking away the “bad” bits like the mandate that said you must have health insurance just as you must have car insurance. You can’t have one without the other; the system would simply collapse. It’s why Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina publicly called it a “fraud” and why, in the most dramatic moment of his career, the ailing Senator John McCain killed it by voting “no” alongside Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine.
Clinton is putting the final touches to a book about her failed 2016 run due out in September called What Happened. She might indulge now in writing an epilogue. Maybe We Won After All.