Column

Lessons from the GOP's mostly dead healthcare plan

The GOP healthcare plan is not dead. It is, in the words of Miracle Max from “Princess Bride,” “only mostly dead.”

Hill-watchers say the Republicans so badly need to pass something that they might just surprise everyone and pass … something today. Maybe. But whatever the Senate passes will not be an actual repeal of Obamacare, never mind an actual replacement. (It can’t be. Since Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell [R-Ky.] and company can’t or won’t work with Democrats — and vice versa — they are trying to pass their bill using the budget reconciliation process, which is rather limited in scope, but only requires a simple majority.) And even if the miracle happens, the immensely unpopular legislation must then go to conference, and after that go back to both chambers for more voting. It will look less like sausage getting made and more like an elaborate, rolling, mortuary makeover.

Rather than wait for the inevitable post-mortems — and in the hope of continuing these cadaverous metaphors — I think what the moment requires is a premortem. Herewith are some takeaways from the GOP’s version of the “Walking Dead”:

• The Obama administration’s greatest successes all involved serving the dessert first. For instance, the Iran deal gave Tehran all of the money upfront. That way, we back out, the Iranians win. And, so it was with Obamacare. Giving states billions of dollars to expand Medicaid upfront made taking it back politically impossible for many Republicans.

• Healthcare is hard and Republicans hate talking about it because it puts them at an automatic disadvantage. Years ago, Chris Matthews described the GOP as the Daddy Party and the Democrats as the Mommy Party. If you can get past the outrageously gendered stereotype, the point remains. Those mansplaining Republicans like to talk about toughness and saving money. The nurturing Democrats like to talk about taking care of people. Healthcare was always a Mommy issue and Republicans can never out-hug Democrats on it. Once the GOP bought into the argument that maximizing coverage is the benchmark of success, real repeal was already dead.

• Moderate Republicans are the most cynical of all. Except for Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), every GOP senator voted for straight repeal of Obamacare in 2015. They never gave any hint that this was a purely symbolic gesture contingent on then-President Obama’s veto. Now that a Republican is in the White House, however, they refuse to go through with it. Counting on these senators to have the courage of their convictions when more than symbolism is at stake is apparently too much.

• The finger-of-blame is the only digit on the president’s famously impressive hands that you can count on him lifting. While the Affordable Care Act was in the works, Obama gave a healthcare speech on average once a week. Trump waited until Monday to give his first, and it’s obvious he doesn’t understand the underlying policy. Big legislation is very hard to pass on a partisan basis and virtually impossible to pass when it is even more unpopular than a disengaged president with record low approval ratings.

• Trump is a weak president. “It's very sad that Republicans, even some that were carried over the line on my back, do very little to protect their president,” Trump lamented on Twitter over the weekend. Trumpologists tend to think this was a reference to the Russia imbroglio, but it’s relevant to the healthcare debacle as well. Every GOP senator — and 90% of those in Congress — outperformed Trump in 2016. He won on their coattails, not the other way around.

• The GOP is an ideologically and politically fractured party unaccustomed to governing. Sure, everyone is afraid of the Trump base, but Make America Great Again talking points about “We the People” notwithstanding, that base is not a majority of the electorate. In swing states where Republican senators need voters who are sour on the president, the healthcare plan or both, that fear encourages them to simply keep their heads down as much as possible.

Again, we may get something today — or some other day — that the White House will hail as a beautiful victory. But, at best, this story ends with a beautiful corpse.

jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com

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