The Republican Party Has a Mitch McConnell Problem
The majority leader is losing his edge.
Mitch McConnell had a choice: he could let the house healthcare bill die in the senate, or he could craft his own. There was no chance the disastrous house bill could pass the upper chamber. GOP senators declared it dead on arrival.
McConnell could have played it safe by telling the base he was working on an alternative, then let the entire ACA repeal effort, the hill upon which McConnell and the GOP chose to make their stand, die. Many analysts and journalists expected just that. After all, the ACA has gained majority support since the election of Donald Trump, and the early repeal efforts caused real and lasting damage to the GOP. Not the least of which was the way it energized the Democratic base.
McConnell could have let the repeal and replace effort peter off in the national discourse. Any conservative group or pundit who might have raised questions could have been put off by McConnell's go-to response: god-tier levels of obfuscation.
He did not choose that path, and it's one of the worst miscalculations of his career.
As Jamelle Bouie at Slate and Steve Benen over on the Maddow blog point out, at the very least there isn't a political upside for McConnell or the GOP in passing what Jordan Weissmann and others consider a nightmare bill.
McConnell chose between letting the debate fade away and leaving the ACA as the status quo, and reigniting the firestorm in an effort to pass a replacement. The first was fraught with potential consequences, but the second is all but guaranteed to further damage the Republican party.
Many pundits are scratching their heads as to why McConnell would make this choice. As Bouie noted in his piece, it appears that Mitch McConnell believes the party can simply bypass the consequences of taking healthcare away from tens of millions of people. Others are correctly pointing out that drafting a new bill at all is a political miscalculation on the part of the majority leader, since the base has proved time and again they will forgive nearly any transgression or break with conservative orthodoxy. Others are incorrectly using this situation as an argument that McConnell is not and never has been a clever political operator, which is ridiculous. As damaging and morally bankrupt as his decisions have been, no one can dispute his ability to maneuver and deal.
The one read that no one seems to have on this situation is also the one I think is the most obvious: McConnell doesn't actually want the bill to pass. His mistake was in believing the base cared more than it does about ACA repeal and making new legislation a priority as a result. Everything going forward flows from that one wrong assumption.
What I believe he's really doing is deliberately crafting a bill he knows won't get the support of the necessary 50 GOP senators. By choosing to include provisions and language he knows will peel off certain votes, McConnell creates a liminal space where he believes blame can be targeted rather than directed at the party in general.
As of right now, at least four GOP senators are publicly against passing the new legislation. If McConnell changes it to suit them, it will peel off several on the other end of the spectrum. This is the one central weakness of the congressional GOP. Finding a middle ground between the extreme right and the moderates is an increasingly narrow ledge to walk.
My read is that McConnell is trying to force the blame for the failure of the bill onto specific senators. It's the human sacrifice version of politics. You force Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and others to eat the blame and take the electoral hit while publicly saying to the base, see? We tried. It's their fault this thing we've been crowing about for most of a decade didn't pass.
As politics go, it's not an ideal solution. It wouldn't be necessary at all had McConnell let ACA repeal, which he knows would ruin the lives of countless American citizens, die on the vine. That one bad call has once again raised the ire of activists and the Democratic base to a fever pitch. That McConnell's solution seems to involve sacrificing his own to thread the needle of blame says much about the current state of the Republican Party.
If the Senate bill does pass, the consequences will be dire for the American people. Draconian cuts to Medicaid, the reinstatement of lifetime caps, and many other examples of a return to the way things were pre-ACA will ruin lives and, yes, take them as well.
It's impossible to imagine that such an action will be met with a resounding "meh" from the American people. While the Republican base might wave their hands dismissively at the callous and cruel decision to repeal the ACA, doing so has already proved to be an incredible motivator for nearly every other slice of the political spectrum.
McConnell is trying to do what he always intended when faced with a government controlled by his party: enact as much of the policy he favors as quickly as possible. In his haste to do so, McConnell tripped over his own feet. It remains to be seen how badly he'll be hurt when he finally hits the ground.