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The Republican Senate’s failure to repeal or replace Obamacare is more than simply a stunning condemnation of Republican voters and the administration. It is an exposure of the party’s intellectual incoherence.
Spurred on by the tea party, repeal and replacement of Obamacare has been a staple party promise since 2010. It is nevertheless difficult to uncover exactly what the party opposed. If someone had asked Republicans and Republican-leaning voters why Obamacare was so heinous, they likely would have been unable to say more than that “it”—whatever they thought Obamacare was—wasn’t a proper thing for government to do.
This soft libertarianism underlay all of the party’s pronouncements for the seven lean years after Obamacare’s passage. Once the GOP held both houses of Congress and the White House, the political famine was theoretically over. In practice, the failure to define why Obamacare was bad meant there was no agreement on what, if anything, should take its place.
The failure to pass a bill shows starkly that the party is unable to say what it is for. It could not agree, or even come close to agreeing, whose health insurance government should subsidize, or how much those subsidies should be, or what types of insurance policies could receive those subsidies. In the end, the only thing repeal had going for it was a sense of political tribalism, that “our voters” wanted “it” regardless of what “it” actually entailed.
But not every senator faces the same mix of voters. The narrow loss of what was called “skinny repeal” shows this in spades.
The three Republican senators who voted no all were not dependent upon conservative voters for their nominations or reelections. Sen. Susan Collins represents Maine, a moderate state that hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988. Her dependence on non-Republicans was well-known, and her “No” vote was expected.
Lisa Murkowski and John McCain, however, represent Republican and conservative states. But each has been the subject of bitter challenges from tea party–backed conservatives recently. Murkowski has twice won general election victories—2010 and 2016—over a libertarian-conservative, Joe Miller, who captured a majority of Republican votes. In both cases, Murkowski won by combining moderate Republicans with moderate to center-left independents and Democrats to carve out plurality wins. Since conservatives already were out for her skin, she had no reason to back down under political pressure.
McCain was also challenged in 2016 from the right. While he won renomination, he still lost nearly half of the vote to three more-conservative challengers. His recent diagnosis of glioblastoma, a fast-moving brain cancer that also felled Sen. Edward Kennedy in 2009, means he knows he is unlikely ever to face Arizona voters again. Freed from politics to vote his conscience, he could not support a bill that could not promise to be anything other than a vehicle for further talks.
The Republican Party is now at a crossroads. Being against liberalism and crass political pressure can only take it so far. To govern, and to put together the cohesive political majority that alone can allow you to remake America, requires saying what you are for. And it turns out that being for low taxes and liberty when people’s lives are at stake just isn’t enough.
—Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism