Republicans Won't Blame Trump If Health Bill Fails

He's safe for a number of good and bad reasons. Republican leaders of Congress? Not so much.

"That's okay."

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

It's much too soon to start digging the grave for the Senate's attempt to "repeal and replace" Obamacare. It still has a chance, even if Mitch McConnell's decision to delay a vote suggests the chance is smaller than he thought at the beginning of the week. Obviously there would be political consequences for failing to deliver the party's top agenda item for seven years. But for whom? 

President Trump: Publicly, it's unlikely he'll get much blame from Republicans, and he doesn't seem worried about the prospect. "If we don't get it done, it's just going to be something that we're not going to like," he told Republican senators at the White House on Tuesday. "And that's OK, and I understand that very well."

Here's why: The loudest voices in Republican-aligned media are solid supporters of the president, and there's no real advantage to be won for politicians or interest group leaders in taking him on over this. There's no sense at picking a fight with someone who has a much, much larger megaphone. Even if they weren't afraid of core Republican voters siding with Trump and not with them, it just doesn't make much sense to blame him. Privately? House Republicans will blame him for calling their bill "mean" after celebrating its passage at the White House, and constantly making unrealistic and extravagant promises they had no way of fulfilling and he made no effort to support. 

Freedom Caucus/Conservative Senators: Both groups probably deserve a fair amount of the blame, but mainstream Republicans rarely call them out, no matter how unpopular the policies the radicals force on the rest of the party might be or how damaging their tactics are. So Senators Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Ron Johnson and Ted Cruz are fine.

RINOs: Republican-aligned media have no hesitation for taking on relatively moderate conservatives as "Republicans In Name Only," even if senators such as Susan Collins and Dean Heller vote with their party the overwhelming bulk of the time. They'll take some of the blame, to be sure -- more, almost certainly, than the radicals. And yet there are strong reasons not to push too hard. Heller is up for reelection in 2018 and is already in serious trouble. So are several of the moderate members of the House who opposed the bill there. Activists and other party actors do not always behave logically, but the electoral argument for muting criticism of these members of Congress is strong. 

Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell: There's no guarantee, but Republican legislative leaders are the most likely scapegoats if the bill dies. Not, as it happens, for the very good reasons why they would be responsible for it. Ryan and McConnell were as responsible as anyone for building expectations that repealing Obamacare would be easy once they had a president and congressional majorities, even though in fact returning to the status quo ante once the Affordable Care Act was fully implemented was always a pipe dream. They were also as responsible as anyone for failing to build any consensus bill over the last seven years, or at least learning which provisions couldn't be included without sparking a revolt. They were the ones who decided to put health care first on the congressional agenda this year. And they were ultimately the ones who defined the fairly open idea of "repeal and replace" to mean gutting Medicaid. 1

Those are the reasons they will deserve the blame. But here's why they're so easily cast as scapegoats: Everyone always hates Congress, and no one screams "Congress" and "Washington" more than the speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader. Partisans will also correctly believe that turning voters against Ryan and McConnell will be much less damaging in 2018 than either demonizing the president -- the most visible party leader -- or attacking Republicans in vulnerable seats. It's also unlikely that many conservative talk-show hosts and TV pundits are even aware of just how difficult it is to pass major legislation, let alone major legislation which polls badly and (at least on the surface) promises negative consequences for many to pay for tax cuts for a few. The loudest voices in Republican-aligned media will be angry that this didn't pass easily, or at least willing to play angry. They'll need a few names that are bigger than Mike Lee and smaller than Donald J. Trump. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Yes, I still think their best bet was a "pretend and rename" approach in which they declared Obamacare dead and moved on to something they had a chance of passing and making popular, such as large tax cuts. 

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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