Is US Political Polarization Turning a Corner?

Last week the Republicans tried three times to pass some sort of repeal to the ACA (Obamacare) along party lines. In our last podcast episode we talk about the complex forces and rules that caused these three attempts to fail.

Politically, this much failure is dangerous. Trump and the GOP are looking for a much-needed legislative win. Trump accused the GOP of being "total quitters" if they abandoned another repeal bill. But right now, they just don't have the votes.

So health reform is dead until someone gets a larger Senate majority, right? 

Well, maybe not.

Enter the "Problem Solvers"

There's a new 43-person caucus in the House, called the "Problem Solvers Caucus," with the motto, "committed to fix, not fight." Sounds great. (I somehow cannot find their list of members but back in May I was told by one of their allies that it's about 70 Congresspeople, nearly evenly split between Republicans and Democrats). However, so far they've achieved precious little in terms of legislation. I remember an angry former veteran Capitol Hill strategist Pat Caddell grill the No Labels folks (not the Congresspeople, but their supporting body) about the fact that their members mostly voted party lines--and they did so during the Obamacare repeal efforts. However, they hadn't yet gotten their own healthcare bill out the door, and now they have. 

On Tuesday August 1, they unveiled a set of proposals (not yet a bill) to tweak Obamacare to improve it. They're specifically addressing rising premium costs and decreasing participation in the exchanges. The options they're proposing appear to be a mix of traditionally Republican- and Democrat-friendly ideas, although it appears as if it might significantly increase the US Federal deficit (according to Brookings). Here's a more detailed list of what they're outlining.

After the Republicans failed to pass anything, they decided to pop their heads up. Perhaps it's their opportunity: 64% of Americans (as of July) want to keep Obamacare, and opposition to the Republicans' last set of options was about 4:1. One gets an even bigger majority when one gives people more granular options: 68% want to "keep what works and fix the rest." What "works" and what doesn't is up for debate, but this huge majority gives the Problem Solvers an opening to be able to frame their legislation as a "fix."

There is some danger they have lost their moment. Senator Lindsey Graham is working on his own bill, and he is likely looking for ways to get a few Democrats on board. More importantly, only 29% of people said they want Congress to keep working on health-care reform rather than move on to other issues. Though this might change if they learned that a bipartisan "tweak" was on the way.

There's also some slinging that this is just a publicity stunt, but it's important to note this: if it's a publicity stunt or not, these folks have a political incentive to show that they're working together and being bi-partisan. They're doing it proudly, rather than secretly (which is what I'm used to hearing from Congresspeople). It means there's some real hunger for bipartisanship if this is something that's good for them.  

But they'll need to have more than 70 people in the House on board to fix this. How can they get others on board?

Different Ways to Spin This

Republicans can claim they're taking action that's going to fix the horrible, no good, very bad Obamacare. Americans no longer have to suffer under its yoke. "Can we please just call the bill something that doesn't include ACA or Obamacare?" I imagine someone asking.

Democrats can claim a big victory here, as well--and they're probably easier to get on board. "Fix it, Don't Nix It" seems to be the rallying call among defenders of Obamacare. So this is a fix. Obamacare stays. "Go us, we won!" The evil Republicans didn't take your healthcare away.

It's gotta be pitched the right way for people to not lose their seats over this. If this goes to vote and gets a healthy level of support--whether or not it works--people will accuse Congresspeople of betraying values, working with the enemy, etc. "Clearly any bill that <INSERT PARTY HERE> supports must be #BAD FOR AMERICA." Arch conservatives will resist it because they're smart enough to know it's not actually a repeal. Arch progressives will resist it because it's still not what Bernie Sanders said he wanted. 

But if it goes forward--and that's a very big "if"--it's going to be a moment where forces of moderation and compromise, the "middle ground," win out over the disproportionately powerful hard-liners. 68% of Americans want to "fix" Obamacare--keep what works, fix what doesn't. It's hard to get 68% of Americans to agree on anything.

The ReConsider Moment

As this comes up, keep an eye on how its being spun--by your friends, by your favorite media outlets, by the really partisan media outlets (there may be some overlap here). Who's calling it a "betrayal?" Who's calling it some form of collusion with the enemy? And who's just giving you the facts about what it will and won't do?



Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.