Mitch McConnell's last-ditch effort to simply repeal the Affordable Care Act crumbled to dust Tuesday, a little more than 12 hours after he proposed it in the wake of the GOP's repeal-and-replace effort having gone down in flames Monday night. And now, after offering a series of responsibility-shucking explanations for the GOP's utter failure to do anything on health care, President Trump is vowing to let ObamaCare collapse while somehow avoiding any responsibility for the consequences.
This seems like a good time to reflect on just how comprehensively incompetent the Republican Party is.
The GOP controls both houses of Congress. It holds the White House. For seven years its leadership railed against ObamaCare, and its rank-and-file members voted to repeal it, over and over again. Yet here we are, six months into the Trump administration, and what has the party managed to deliver?
Nada. Zilch. Zero.
Liberals like Jonathan Chait and Michael Cohen see this as a vindication of Obama's legacy, a sign that if Democrats "expand the welfare state, they (the voters) will come.” But this whole sorry spectacle has nothing to do with the strength of liberalism in general or ObamaCare in particular. It's a product of one thing and one thing only: The complete political ineffectiveness of the contemporary Republican Party. Yes, the GOP can win elections, thanks to gerrymandering and the formidable deployment of weaponized negative partisanship. That makes it a powerful party of opposition. But when it comes to actually doing something, the GOP's got nothing.
The problem is not, as Chait also contends, that the Republicans are unified in adherence to a conservative ideology that entails "cruel, horrific, and repugnant" policies. If it were that simple, the party could enact its cruel agenda, or choose to change direction, embracing less cruel and repugnant policies. Either way, if the party were unified, it could get something — anything — done.
It can't do that because the party as a whole is deeply divided against itself. It has no idea what policies to support across a range of issues.
Let's start with health care: House Speaker Paul Ryan, whom President Trump's chief strategist believes may have been "grown in a petri dish at the Heritage Foundation," has wanted to gut Medicaid since he was a keg-guzzling college student. Hardcore libertarians, meanwhile, want to replace the Affordable Care Act's mandates and regulated insurance marketplaces with genuinely free markets, consumer choices, and tax cuts. Then there are the moderates, who want ObamaCare to stay pretty much as it is, especially when it comes to its Medicaid expansion. And finally, the policy wonks want government-funded heath-savings accounts and tax credits for the working class.
Then there's Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. What does he want? Judging from his statements, he couldn't care less about the nation's health-care system. Like the president, he appears to be motivated entirely by a desire for a "win," regardless of what it is. He'll promise the libertarians and conservative ideologues a rollback of Medicaid while simultaneously assuring the moderates that the promised rollback will never happen. He'll even respond to a collapse in support for the Senate's bill by proposing to pass a full repeal of the ACA, with the consequences delayed for two years — which is a little like Israel and the Palestinians patting themselves on the back for signing a comprehensive peace agreement that includes a provision to delay discussion of Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank for 24 months. If McConnell were an honest man instead of a political operator, he would have dubbed the bill the "LOL Nothing Matters Act."
That's why McConnell's repeal-only gambit was bound to fail. Sure, the dissenters who scuttled the plan, moderate Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), voted for the same bill back in 2015. But the vote two years ago was an act of transparent political BS. President Obama's veto meant that the bill would never become law. It was pure political theater, an empty gesture. By contrast, passing such a bill now would either make Republicans responsible for 32 million fewer people carrying insurance (including 19 million who would lose Medicaid coverage) over the next 10 years — or it would eventually require them to pass a "replace" bill for which we already know there is no consensus in the party.
Health care is clearly a "major GOP defeat." But at least Republicans can now turn to the next item on the party's agenda, one for which there is solid consensus. Right?
Wrong. As soon as a tax-reform bill begins to be debated, we're likely to see the very same fissures open up between conservative movement stalwarts and libertarians on the one hand and moderates on the other. The former will fight for the largest possible upper-income and investment tax cuts while the latter will fret about deficits, demand tax relief for the middle class, and favor modest revenue increases over spending cuts. And once again, compromise will prove elusive.
The dissention has even spread into foreign policy, an area on which Republicans once stood shoulder to shoulder. If you want to get a sense of how deeply divided the party now is on the most basic questions of America's role in the world, take a look at last week's rancorous argument on Fox News between Tucker Carlson and Max Boot. Carlson upholds the Trumpian line, savaging the neocon Boot for supporting the Iraq War and favoring military intervention in Libya and Syria, while Boot excoriates Carlson for displaying insufficient alarm about Russia's efforts at meddling in the 2016 presidential election. An outsider observing the exchange would conclude that these two pundits were ideological enemies from deeply opposed political parties, not representatives of competing factions within the same party.
And so it goes on issue after issue. The GOP is a party in disarray, with antithetical factions pulling in incompatible directions.
Republicans may continue to win elections by uniting around a common hatred of liberalism. The same animus may give them the cohesion to continue blocking Democratic ambitions at every turn. And of course the president's efforts at deconstructing the administrative state from the inside continue apace. But the party accomplishing anything big, new, or ambitious of its own? That is close to impossible.