I Don’t See GOP Bloodbaths in the Near Future

It seems like criticizing the Affordable Care Act is a liberal pastime but it’s often forgotten just how close the effort came to failing, or that it was a lack of Democratic unity (and uniform Republican opposition) that made the bill weaker and less politically appealing than it ought to have been. That’s a caveat to what follows here.

Not enough attention was paid to how unpopular parts of the Affordable Care Act would be, which is why the Democrats didn’t anticipate that, far from getting credit for fulfilling a campaign promise, they would be wiped out of Congress and state legislatures all over the country. One reason that liberals asked for a public option was that they considered it better policy, but another was that they thought it would blunt the pain of imposing an individual mandate to buy insurance.

I don’t want to relitigate the public option. I’d rather chew shards of glass. But I bring this up because fulfilling campaign promises is overrated. Yeah, it’s nice to be able to do what you said you’d do, but that doesn’t mean there will be any political reward for it. In fact, if your achievement is controversial and has some significant downsides, then it’s possible that you’ll be punished for keeping your campaign promise.

To use a hypothetical example, it’s impossible to imagine that the Republicans would be rewarded politically if abortion were actually outlawed. They would be slaughtered, and they know it.

Paul Ryan should keep that in mind. He says that “if we don’t keep our word [to repeal Obamacare] to the people who sent us here, yes” there will be a bloodbath for Republicans in 2018.

I think that’s probably backwards.

I’ve written several pieces lately detailing why the Republicans are almost completely inoculated against any accountability for almost anything they do. I doubt there’s anything they could do to lose the Senate in 2018, but repealing Obamacare would surely make it more possible than failing to repeal it. The same goes for the House.

Repealing Obamacare and replacing it with anything like what the Republicans are currently proposing would be a certain way to do obvious harm to their own constituents, and to do it in a way in which it would be impossible to convincingly pass the buck onto the Democrats.

And, even if this weren’t true, we’ve already seen several elections (1994, 2010, 2014) where tinkering (or attempting to tinker) with health care came with disastrous, unwarranted results. People who like their health care don’t like proposals to change their health care. So much the worse, I imagine, when the change actually comes and it’s bad.

That’s why I don’t agree with Paul Waldman that the Republicans will get a bloodbath no matter whether they repeal Obamacare or they don’t.

This is vastly overstated, in my opinion:

But there’s a problem: 2018 is probably going to be a bloodbath for Republicans whether they pass repeal or not…

Ryan is almost certainly right that if they fail to pass repeal, the GOP base will be disgusted with its leaders…

…if they can’t pass it with complete control of government, it would be even worse. You’d likely see depressed turnout among Republicans who saw no reason to rush to the polls to reelect representatives who can’t seem to do what they promised.

To be honest, I can’t see a scenario where depressed turnout for Republicans would cost them the Senate, no matter how severe it may be, and I can almost say the same thing for the House. Their base of supporters is so much better geographically dispersed than the Democrats’, and their gerrymandering and incumbency advantages are such that they can win the House even if millions and millions of more people turn out to vote against them.

The only way for the Republicans to lose is if they actually lose support from their base and a big segment of those people turn out to vote for the Democrats. Repealing Obamacare could conceivably accomplish this. But failing to repeal Obamacare almost certainly could not.

In truth, I don’t doubt that Americans will turn out in 2018 with a real purpose to take power away from the Republicans. It’s just that the Republicans’ advantages are so incredible at this point that even an enormous effort won’t necessarily translate into results. I can easily see Democratic Senate candidates getting tens of millions more votes in 2018 and still losing a handful of seats without capturing even a single Republican one. Maybe Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada will lose but I doubt any other incumbent Republicans will.

Still, if the Republicans want to make it possible for them to lose Senate seats in Mississippi, Utah, Idaho, and Tennessee, then they should go ahead and pass their health care bill. I can’t think of anything else they could do that would make those seats remotely competitive, and that includes starting ill-advised wars, failing to protect levees, or having a president in the midst of impeachment hearings. Their geographical and cultural advantages are so strong right now that they almost can’t lose, and they have Jeff Sessions in place to make sure they can suppress the vote any way that they want.

I hate to be a downer like this, but there really is no mechanism for holding them accountable or to make them fear general elections more than primaries from their right. So, the truth is almost the opposite of what Waldman says. He says, “2018 is probably going to be a bloodbath for Republicans whether they pass repeal or not.” I say “2018 is probably not going to be a bloodbath for Republicans whether they pass repeal or not.”

For the GOP, keeping their promises on health care would be about the only way they could screw up their lock on power. And I doubt even that would be sufficient.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.