2018 midterms

The GOP’s 2019 Agenda Is for Donors’ Eyes Only

No puppet? Photo-Illustration: Konstantin Sergeyev/Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images/Getty Images

In May of last year, congressional Republicans were trying to pass a historically unpopular plan for restructuring the American health care system. The stakes of this effort were so high — and the pushback against it so fierce — that the debate over Obamacare repeal eclipsed every other fight on Capitol Hill.

And yet, a Republican was asking voters to elect him to the House of Representatives that month without knowing where he stood on the issue. For weeks, Greg Gianforte had insisted that he could not responsibly take a position on the latest version of Obamacare’s repeal until he saw the Congressional Budget Office’s analysis of its effects. Then, on May 24 — the night before Montana’s special congressional election — the CBO published its findings. Among them: If passed, the Republican bill would increase the number of Americans without health insurance by 23 million over the coming decade.

That night, a reporter asked Gianforte what his position was on Obamacare repeal, now that he’d seen the data he’d been waiting for. Gianforte declined to answer. The reporter persisted, suggesting that the people of Montana deserved to know where he stood. The Republican candidate responded by grabbing the reporter, slamming him to the ground, and punching him repeatedly while yelling, “I’m sick and tired of you guys!” in front of several horrified witnesses.

Last night, Donald Trump praised now-congressman Gianforte’s handling of that situation. “Any guy that can do a body-slam … he’s my guy,” the president told supporters at a rally in Big Sky Country. Trump went on to say that, while he was initially alarmed by news of the GOP candidate’s untimely assault, he subsequently thought, “‘I know Montana pretty well. I think it might help him.’ And it did!”

These remarks are, of course, illustrative of the president’s authoritarian contempt for the very concept of a free press. But they are also indicative of the Republican Party’s broader contempt for democratic governance; or, in simpler terms, for its own voters.

None of the Republicans campaigning for Congress this year have broken a reporter’s glasses. But just about all of them have declined to let voters know what their (actual) positions on health-care policy are — or to provide them with any detailed information about what their party’s governing agenda will be, should it retain both chambers of Congress this fall. As conservative commentator Ramesh Ponnuru argues in Bloomberg:

Take a look at Republican Senate candidates’ websites. You will find many who pledge to vote against gun regulations. You won’t find much by way of explanation of what legislation they would try to enact if they win their races. They have returned to vague calls to repeal and replace Obamacare. They’re not touting any infrastructure plans.

… Republicans might be able to expand their ranks in the Senate without campaigning to do anything in particular. Perhaps they will even hold a slimmed-down majority in the House. But they will find, as they found in early 2017, that it is difficult to get the party working together on an agenda without having built a consensus before the election.

I am tempted to say that there is something, if not anti-democratic, at least contrary to the spirit of good government, in a political party so thoroughly abandoning the notion that it will tell us in advance what it will do if it wins an election … In the Republicans’ limited defense, however, they are probably giving us an accurate picture of what they would accomplish legislatively if given the chance in 2019-20. If they win and do nothing, nobody will be able to call them on broken promises.

Ponnuru is correct that Republicans haven’t given voters the slightest idea of what they would do with control of Congress next year. Most are campaigning against sanctuary cities (a municipal policy that Congress has no authority over); or Medicare cuts (a policy that the Republican leadership officially supports, and that Democrats officially oppose); or ungrateful NFL players; or the fact that Christine Blasey Ford was allowed to accuse Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault in sworn Senate testimony; or socialized medicine; or gun control; or MS-13; or terrorism. Almost none are saying, with any specificity, what they’re for.

And yet, the conclusion that Ponnuru draws from this — that Republicans do not have a governing agenda — is ill-founded. Greg Gianforte did not withhold his position on Obamacare repeal from Montana voters because he had no opinion on the subject; he did so because he felt it politically advantageous not to share that opinion in public. When huddled with Republican lobbyists behind closed doors, Gianforte was quite candid about his support for throwing million of Americans off their health insurance.

Similarly, the GOP’s Senate candidates in West Virginia and Missouri have spent the past few weeks assuring voters that they have no intention of eliminating the Affordable Care Act’s protections for people with preexisting conditions — while simultaneously supporting a lawsuit that asks the judiciary to do just that. Martha McSally — who voted last year for a bill that would have priced many people with pre-existing conditions out of the insurance market, according to the CBO — is pulling the same “believe what I say, not what I did” act in Arizona’s Senate race.

This messaging should not be interpreted as a declaration of surrender in the Obamacare wars. Throughout their push to repeal the Affordable Care Act last year, Republicans deployed nearly identical rhetoric. Paul Ryan never argued that chemotherapy should be a luxury good. Rather, he touted his party’s deep commitment to protecting those with preexisting conditions, while pushing legislation that would have made health insurance unaffordable for non-affluent cancer patients. Further, Mitch McConnell never extolled the virtues of throwing millions of Americans off of Medicaid (so as to clear budgetary space for corporate tax cuts); rather, he criticized the Affordable Care Act for leaving “25 million Americans” uninsured, and millions more with high-deductible plans — while rallying his caucus behind a bill that would have increased deductibles on the individual market, and tossed another 20-something million Americans into the ranks of the uninsured.

In recent weeks, Senate Republicans have sought to bolster their candidates’ claims to moderation on health-care by publicizing a bill that would require insurers to offer coverage to everyone, no matter their medical history. But like the party’s previous Obamacare replacements, the legislation places no restriction on how much companies can charge people with preexisting conditions for their insurance. Which is to say, the bill, in its majestic equality, allows the rich as well as the poor to purchase insurance for their chronic medical problems at $1,000,000 per month.

Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell told Reuters this week that if Republicans retain the House — and expand their Senate majority — they will revive Obamacare repeal. Ponnuru is right that the GOP has offered few details on what such a health-care bill would look like. But the general outlines of repeal have long been clear.

The ACA attempts to ensure universal access to affordable insurance through three main mechanisms:

(1) Requiring the young and healthy to purchase insurance at artificially high rates, so that insurers can afford to (profitably) provide coverage to the conspicuously ill at artificially low rates.

(2) Taxing the rich to provide working-class Americans with subsidies that defray the costs of coverage.

(3) Expanding Medicaid to cover more low-income Americans.

Every major Republican health-care bill is designed to roll back some or all of these methods for socializing medical costs. There is ambiguity about how far a future GOP Congress would be willing to go in helping the rich and healthy, at the expense of the poor and sick. But there is no question that such a regressive rebalancing has always been the heart of the GOP vision for a post-Obamacare world.

Ponnuru’s skepticism about the GOP’s prospects of realizing this vision, if given the opportunity, is not baseless. The party was, of course, unable to overcome the profound unpopularity of its health-care ideas last year. But Ponnuru’s suggestion that Republicans will not be able to pass major legislation unless they build “a consensus before the election” is naive. In 2016, the GOP did not build a consensus for a giant, deficit-financed tax cut for the wealthy. Rather, Donald Trump promised voters a tax law that wouldn’t benefit the rich, nor increase the deficit — and continued to do so, throughout the legislative push for a bill that did the opposite. Congressional Republicans did not rally behind the Trump Tax Cuts because they had made detailed promises to the public that they felt compelled to uphold — but rather, because they had made such promises to their donors. As the HuffPost reported last November:

“My donors are basically saying, ‘Get it done or don’t ever call me again,’” Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), himself a millionaire, said on Tuesday.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters on Thursday that a failure to pass tax reform would fracture the Republican Party and lead to more far-right wing primary challengers. “The financial contributions will stop,” he added.

… Lawmakers aren’t the only ones talking about the connection between legislation and campaign money. Conservative donors and those running the political groups that help elect Republicans have issued similar dire warnings.

“(Donors) would be mortified if we didn’t live up to what we’ve committed to on tax reform,” Steven Law, the head of Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC affiliated with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), told the New York Post.

If Republicans retain the House this fall, they will (almost certainly) expand their majority in the Senate by several seats (due to the right-wing tilt of this year’s Senate map). Which is to say: After prioritizing the passage of historically unpopular legislation — which violated core promises they had made to the electorate — Congressional Republicans will find themselves rewarded with more power than they had previously held. Their strategy of baldly lying to voters, while doing the bidding of their reactionary donors, will have been roundly vindicated. In that context, it (almost certainly) will not be hard to build intra-party consensus on at least a few of the Koch Network’s goals. It’s probably true that Republicans aren’t interested in going after Medicare and Social Security without Democratic cover. But House Republicans have already passed multiple bills that would cut funding to Medicaid and food stamps in the name of deficit reduction. If Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski lose their veto power over the GOP’s Senate majority, then Republicans will probably make life harder for our nation’s most vulnerable citizens next year.

Republicans spend a lot of time and money accusing “the liberal elite” of looking down on white, rural America. But virtually every campaign ad the GOP has aired this year has been a tacit expression of contempt for its own voters — who, in the (ostensible) estimation of conservative elites, cannot be trusted to appreciate the wisdom of their party’s actual agenda.

What the Republican leadership does trust its supporters to do — as President Trump said in Montana last night — is cheer when politicians who are trying to deceive them attack journalists who believe they deserve to know the truth.

The GOP’s 2019 Agenda Is for Donors’ Eyes Only