WASHINGTON ― What are the political ramifications of threatening to let your constituents die needlessly?
Up until May 4, 2017, it would have been a theoretical question for which political scientists lacked the data to answer. But come 2018, we’ll find out.
Democrats feel like they already know the answer. For a party that just watched its signature legislative achievement get repealed in a tight vote on the House floor, Democrats had quite the spring in their step, even breaking into song as the vote was gaveled. “Nah, nah, nah, nah/Nah, nah, nah, nah/Hey, hey, hey, goodbye,” Democrats bellowed in unison to their Republican colleagues in the chamber.
The song appalled Rep. Tom MacArthur, a Republican from New Jersey who brokered a deal with the Freedom Caucus that got the party to this point.
“I simply don’t look at this through a political lens, and frankly I thought that was beneath the dignity of the House to be singing a song with a political message. This isn’t about politics. This is about the American people having health care and making sure that prices come down,” he said.
The dignity of the House of Representatives aside, MacArthur, elected in 2014, was unaware that his own party had serenaded Democrats with the same song as they passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010.
The taunt was accurate then: Democrats were swept out of office, and voting against Obamacare wasn’t enough to save many of them. Of the 32 Democrats who voted against the Affordable Care Act out of political concern, 21 lost or retired in the next cycle. The problem is not only the individual vote, it is also the collective action taken by the party ― and voters are fond of doling out collective punishment. If the effect is anything like what happened in 2010, any Republican who won his or her seat by 20 points or less is now vulnerable.
The bill passed by the Republican House gives states the option of ignoring Affordable Care Act requirements that people with pre-existing conditions have affordable access to health care. In its place, the state must create a “high-risk pool” ― traditionally, an underfunded program that comes nowhere close to providing the kind of coverage needed.
Political punishment, in the form of massive amounts of cash flowing to House Republican opponents, is already being doled out. Rep. Darrell Issa, a vulnerable Republican from California, told reporters “none of your business” when asked Wednesday how he’d vote. By Thursday, he seemed no more willing to share his position with the public, even as the clock on the vote ticked down to zero. Often, members of Congress who want to avoid a tough vote wait until the very end in hopes that theirs won’t be needed. With the tally at 215 yes votes, one short of the total, Issa finally cast his vote, putting it over the top and bringing a loud cheer from the Republican side. (It finished with 217, as there is a political maxim that a one-vote win should be avoided at all costs, because it lets the opponent say that every single vote was “the deciding vote.”)
Democratic activists responded by raising at least $100,000 in a single day dedicated to whomever becomes Issa’s opponent, according to Michelle Finocchi of the group Swing Left, which launched after the election with the aim of funneling Democratic energy from blue districts into areas where it could make a difference.
Another $300,000 was raised by a Swing Left page that split the money evenly among 35 swing districts where a Republican voted yes. “We informally collaborated on this with Jon Favreau and Crooked Media,” said Finocchi. “It’s the result of playing around, brainstorming, trying things out and seeing what worked. The genesis of the ideas was how to turn lemons into lemonade in this awful moment.” She said $150,000 of that came in right around the time of the vote.
And another page set up on ActBlue was on its way to an additional $300,000 raised by the time this story was published and has probably climbed much higher since.
The progressive website Daily Kos put out its own call for donors to help defeat the 24 most vulnerable Republicans who voted for the bill. In less than four hours, the site collected nearly $200,000 from more than 4,000 donors. That was even before Daily Kos emailed the fundraising appeal to its 3.5 million members. As of Friday morning, donations to the site had climbed to a record $650,000.
That, at least, will be counterbalanced by one critical but overlooked element of the repeal bill. The politics of the vote are bad for Republicans on every level save one: Wealthy backers of Republican politicians have expected a major tax cut to come from control of both Congress and the White House. Delivering on that promise will pay off in campaign contributions and other benefits, as the repeal of the Affordable Care Act amounts to an extraordinarily large tax cut directed at the wealthiest people in the country.
“Obviously the president really wanted a win here,” said Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine). “The Republicans themselves needed to dispose of this so they could extract the tax dollars. I mean, they’re getting something like $800-900 billion in returned taxes. So they want to use that money for their tax cut plan. And I don’t think they care that they’re taking it away from people who needed it.”
Leah Greenberg, chief strategy officer for the progressive movement Indivisible, a federated group of hundreds of local chapters, said that the vote was sparking an upsurge in activity, with at least 21 protests against individual members of Congress already planned and more likely coming. In February, she said, 250 events were scheduled during the congressional recess. That surged to 450 during the most recent recess. The one coming up is likely to see even more.
“My Republican colleagues are going to be really, really sorry that they rushed this bill to the floor before they got an amended CBO score,” Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) said, because once that Congressional Budget Office projection becomes available, Americans “are going to be shocked to wake up to find out, if this Trumpcare bill passes, many millions more will lose their coverage.”
On a process level, it would be hard for it to have been worse. After years of complaining that Obamacare was rushed or that nobody had read the bill, the GOP bill was rammed to a floor vote so fast the CBO hadn’t had a chance to analyze its impact.
But otherwise the bill is a loser for Republicans. On a broad level, never before in American history has a political party run on the fact that they took something away from constituents (except, I suppose, the Republican Party of Lincoln, which took slavery away from Southern slave owners). And Democratic operatives on both the House and Senate side say they plan to make the GOP effort to repeal Obamacare the central plank of their campaigns in 2018.
“This is a scar they will carry,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said before the vote. Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, made a case you’ll hear over and over again: Republicans now own the health care system.
When Democrats wrote the Affordable Care Act, they did something incomprehensibly stupid that will now rebound to their benefit: They made the window for enrollment October, meaning that premium increases were always announced just days before the election. In both 2014 and 2016, ugly percentage spikes undoubtedly drove voters into the arms of Republicans. This time, voters will have a different party to blame in October 2018, when premium increases are announced.
Democrats were caught by surprise after the passage of health care reform that all of a sudden they owned every problem with the system. Premiums had been rising steadily, networks had been narrowing, deductibles had been increasing long before Obamacare was passed, but once it became law, every negative interaction with the system took on a political dimension. Now Republicans own the system, whether they pass reform into law or not.
There are also regional problems for Republicans. The party is trying to hold on to much-needed seats in New York and California; remarkably, the bill Republicans just voted for would make subsidies in those states unusable for insurance, because the bill bans such money from going to plans that cover abortion, and California and New York require all plans to cover abortion services.
The bill also targets Planned Parenthood for destruction, which will further galvanize women and men who support the organization to turn out and vote.
In Appalachian states, the opioid epidemic has become one of the most important political issues on the table, if not the most important. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) ran his entire 2016 campaign around the issue and cruised to victory. He is now opposed to the House bill. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat up for re-election in 2018 in Ohio, will be able to hang this vote around whomever his opponent is, because it puts at risk the various policy levers and funding mechanisms that have gone toward combating the epidemic.
The same dynamic will hold in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, and will resonate in Minnesota and Wisconsin, too, all states with Senate elections.
How easy is it to hammer them? It takes the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee just six seconds to do it.
Beyond an ability to collectively blame all Republicans for the vote, Democrats will also be able to pin it on specific Republicans who run for the Senate in 2018. The recruiting process is only in its nascent stages, but many of the top prospects Republicans hope to lure to run against red state Democrats are currently members of the House ― and most just voted to gut protections for people with pre-existing conditions or were part of a body that did so.
Take Indiana, where two top GOP prospects to take on Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly are Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita. The DSCC is already up with video of them praising the health care bill.
Immediately after the vote, Tom Perriello, a former congressman whose vote for Obamacare helped cost him his Virginia seat, put out an ad smashing an ambulance, a metaphor for the Republican vote. (Perriello, running for governor of Virginia, said that it was a defunct ambulance without an engine.)
The policy implications of Thursday’s vote could be profound. Senate Republicans are already discarding the House bill, saying they plan to write one of their own. If they do, it would reshape the health care system. If they don’t, and Democrats take back power in 2020, the base will want everything.
Democratic activists considered Obamacare a compromise on top of a compromise, as it wasn’t Medicare for All, and it didn’t even include a public health insurance option. Now that Republicans have set a precedent for rewriting a fifth of the economy in a matter of days without waiting for a CBO analysis, the Democratic base will be demanding the same, but this time for something much grander than the Affordable Care Act.
But first, the effort at repeal is still alive, and Pingree said she worried Democrats were getting too eager. “Some of my colleagues were singing on the floor ‘Goodbye.’ I’m a little worried that we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves, and frankly we shouldn’t be cheering this either, if we’re just giddy about thinking they’re losing. This is a solemn occasion. They have just undercut health care for virtually everybody in this country who could be affected by this.”
The politics are, indeed, bad for Republicans, she added. “It’s hard for me to believe it won’t impact the next cycle of elections because the American people are smart, and they’re going to figure this isn’t going to work for them,” she said. “I was here in 2008. I watched a lot of my colleagues lose their election in 2010. It’s because the American people, they won’t let you get away with something. And they’re 10 times more alert about what’s going on today.”
Why, then, did Republicans do what they did? Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) put it succinctly, as he often does. Cole said he wasn’t worried about energizing the Democratic base but that when Republicans gave up earlier on repeal without even taking a vote, their base felt betrayed and lied to. So they had to do something, even if it couldn’t pass the Senate, or risk their base staying home on Election Day.
“I think the Democratic base is already whipped up, and that’s fair enough. But if we had failed to do this, I think it would actually depress our turnout,” he said.
This article has been updated with the latest donation figures to Daily Kos.