Now that it appears the Republican Party’s seven-year crusade to repeal Obamacare and replace it with their own mysterious alternative is finally dead (for now, at least), the GOP is on the hunt for someone to scapegoat. As New York’s Jonathan Chait argued, the real reason for Trumpcare’s defeat is that “it was never possible to reconcile public standards for a humane health-care system with conservative ideology.” That’s not an explanation you can present to voters, so for months Republicans have been trying to shift the blame for their health-care struggles, pointing at times to House Speaker Paul Ryan, the Freedom Caucus, moderate House Republicans, the Congressional Budget Office, and, of course, Democrats.
Though senators carefully avoided being labeled “the Republican who saved Obamacare,” conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt suggested true conservatives won’t soon forget the list of defectors.
But ultimately, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was the one caught holding the hot potato (or in this case the widely hated bill that would have uninsured millions of Americans). McConnell’s reputation as a master tactician is a large part of the reason the bill got as far as it did. Speaker Ryan initially had to call off a vote on the American Health Care Act in the House, and when it passed in May several House members said they only voted for it on the assumption that the Senate would make it less horrible.
McConnell decided complete secrecy was the best approach to this process. He spent May and June crafting his bill behind closed doors, then unveiled legislation that looked like AHCA with an even less catchy name (the Better Care Reconciliation Act, or BCRA). While the impossibility of resolving conservative and moderate Republicans’ goals for the health-care system was the biggest obstacle to passage, McConnell’s underhandedness helped seal its fate. Shortly before senators Mike Lee and Jerry Moran came out against the bill, Republicans learned McConnell had been making wildly different claims about what BCRA would do, depending on whom he was talking to.
Senator Ron Johnson called this a “breach of trust,” and on Tuesday he wouldn’t say if he would continue to support McConnell as speaker. “I don’t know what’s going to happen moving forward,” Johnson said, according to Politico. “I didn’t develop the process, let’s put it that way.”
The health bill’s failure has seriously damaged McConnell’s reputation and raised doubts about his ability to push through the rest of Trump’s agenda, but the vast majority of Republican senators remain supportive.
And McConnell is not done maneuvering. Though it became even clearer on Tuesday that a “straight repeal” of Obamcare can’t make it out of the Senate, McConnell said he intends to hold a vote anyway. As New York’s Ed Kilgore explained, this is a way for McConnell to absolve himself from blame:
Most likely he wants to preempt any future conservative argument that he never intended to repeal Obamacare fully, and didn’t even try it. And in particular, he wants to deflect any fire coming from the White House, which has been promoting the revived repeal-and-delay strategy in recent days.
McConnell is also giving conservatives a shillelagh with which to beat Republican moderates who fail to go along with repeal, and perhaps even to mount primary challenges against them in 2018 or beyond. He understands that, like every GOP congressional leader, he holds his gavel at the sufferance of the right.
And what of that other figure in all this, the person who the GOP health-care plan is named for, despite his objections? President Trump said on Tuesday that he’s disappointed, but made it very clear that he bears no responsibility for the failure of Trumpcare:
He also said his plan was now “to let Obamacare fail, it will be a lot easier. And I think we’re probably in that position where we’ll let Obamacare fail. We’re not going to own it. I’m not going to own it. I can tell you the Republicans are not going to own it. We’ll let Obamacare fail and then the Democrats are going to come to us.”
The president appeared disengaged from the Senate health-care battle, which was McConnell’s doing. The majority leader reportedly said he could handle the job himself, and the White House trusted him because he’s the Bizarro World Olivia Pope.
But even before the bill reached the Senate, Trump veered between inaction and actively thwarting efforts to draft a workable GOP health plan. And there’s a difference between giving McConnell room to work and using what was ostensibly a dinner to discuss health-care strategy to regale senators who already supported the bill with tales from his trip to France. Per the Washington Post:
By Monday evening, when President Trump and Pence gathered a cluster of GOP senators in the Blue Room of the White House over plates of lemon ricotta agnolotti and grilled rib-eye steak, the measure was all but dead.
“The president talked about France and Bastille Day,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said in an interview Tuesday, recalling the president’s tales during dinner of parades and pomp from his recent trip to Paris.
Daines described the group’s conversation, which also touched on issues ranging from health care to the debt limit, as loose — as if Trump “sat down and went out to dinner with friends, acquaintances, people you work with. It was just dinner to talk about what’s going on.”
Some White House staffers were willing to admit (without using their names) that they’d miscalculated on the health bill. “When you stack a White House with people who’ve never worked in Washington, people who openly disdain Washington, you’re basically trying to elevate people who don’t understand Congress, don’t understand how you make a law,” one senior White House aide told the Daily Beast.
Politico reported that many White House aides appeared eager to move on from the health-care debate — but if someone needs to take the blame, they nominate White House chief of staff Reince Priebus:
“He pushed health care first,” one senior administration official told Politico in the weeks leading up to Monday evening’s Senate blowup. “He owns the outcome.” Another senior West Wing aide noted dismissively that “the goose was cooked with the first House bill — and that was Reince and his friends.”
… The president — who for weeks has been calling around asking friends for advice about how to replace his chief of staff — did not immediately blame Priebus on Tuesday for the bill’s cratering. But White House aides say there’s a broader sense that the former Republican National Committee chairman has failed to leverage his relationships on Capitol Hill, including his close friendship with Ryan — the main qualities that made him an attractive hire back in December — on Trump’s behalf.
Priebus unwittingly illustrated this dynamic during a trip to Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
One person has reportedly turned down an offer to be Priebus’s successor – and, presumably, the person lambasted for Trump’s next legislative failure.