Can a party that defines itself almost entirely by what it’s against transform itself into a party that can govern? From the evidence of the Republicans’ futile efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, the answer seems to be: no.
Mitch McConnell’s talent, it turns out, has always been for obstructing the Democrats. No to considering President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee; no to shoring up the infrastructure; no to a higher minimum wage; no—if not a thousand times no, then close to a hundred times no—to Obamacare, which both House and Senate, under GOP control, voted repeatedly, regularly, like clockwork, to repeal—in the assurance that Obama would veto those measures.
When given the power, once Donald Trump entered the White House, to actually enact legislation, however, none of McConnell’s wiles sufficed. The failure to construct even a remotely plausible market-driven health-care system that would cover as many Americans as the ACA did, though, isn’t simply McConnell’s or Trump’s or Paul Ryan’s fault. The failure belongs to the Republican Party, to the right-wing media’s success at insulating the right from reality, and to the brain death of American conservatism.
To the Ayn-Rand-addled sensibilities of a Ryan, Obamacare and the expansion of Medicaid were ideological abominations, just as Medicare was to Ronald Reagan in 1965, and Social Security was to Barry Goldwater before them. To white nationalists of Steve Bannon’s ilk, Obama himself was an abomination. Conjoined, these two tendencies within the Republican base drove the purely negative anti-Obama agenda that McConnell and Ryan followed once they took control of Congress.
But if Trump’s election appeared to present the Randians with the power to enact their Scrooge-ian dreams, Trump’s electorate made that impossible. Even without Trump heading the ticket, the Republicans were becoming increasingly reliant on the votes of the white working class, and that white working class was downwardly mobile. Obamacare’s extension of Medicaid eligibility from the poor to the merely struggling turned the program into a lifeline to record numbers of those embattled whites.
Since the ACA took effect, the number of Medicaid and CHIP recipients in West Virginia, that most white working-class of states, has increased by 59 percent.
Yesterday, that state’s Republican senator, Shelley Moore Capito, put what looks like the final nail in Repeal’s coffin when she became the third GOP senator to reject McConnell’s last, desperate offer.
So long as the Republican to-do list could exist in a state of pure negation—rejecting Obama, the Democrats, and all their works—the nationalists and Randians could co-exist. Once they were called upon to create laws and systems that worked for both constituencies, however, they failed utterly. Libertarians oppose social insurance, social infrastructure, social regulation, social anything. In a period when the market chiefly produces towering inequality, theirs is a program that not only has nothing constructive to contribute, but also very limited appeal to any but their fellow ideological zealots. Even more so when they propose not simply to block proposals for social insurance, but to take social insurance away from 20 million or 30 million of their fellow Americans.
Within the friendly confines of the world that right-wing media create, however, Republican leaders could come to believe that there’s actually support for rolling back rights and guarantees that Americans have come to believe are established. William Buckley famously declared that the task of the conservative was to stand athwart history yelling “Stop!” But all he said was Stop—not Go Back Ten Paces, not Retreat 20 Years.
It is a mark of how untethered from actual American reality conservatives have become that they thought they could snatch health coverage away from tens of millions of their compatriots, or roll back same-sex marriage, or repeal the 17th Amendment, enacted in 1913, which took the power to elect U.S. senators from state legislators and gave it to voters—a proposal currently under consideration by ALEC, the right-wing state legislative lobby.
In the 1970s, as the Green Party of Germany grew from a small group of hard-core believers into a party that elected delegates to parliament, the nicknames for the party’s two wings were the “fundis” (the fundamentalists) and the “realos” (those Greens who bent a bit to appeal to more voters). So long as a party is out of power, fundis and realos can find ways to work together; it’s when power arrives that the real trouble begins. Cocooned within a counterfactual right-wing world, Republican fundis have chained the party’s agenda to fantasies that, if ever enacted, would devastate not just the nation but their own voters. Republican realos understand that, which is why McConnell couldn’t bridge the gap between the Rand Pauls and Mike Lees on the fundi side, and the Susan Collinses and Shelley Capitos on the realo.
The party of No negated itself this week. And a negative times a negative, need I remind you, always yields a positive.