As Republicans lick their wounds over a demoralizing and reverberating healthcare loss, one element of the fresh failure is especially enraging. It's not that 49 Senators were willing to advance the process by passing a flawed bill, just one vote shy of the (temporary) finish line. It's not even that Susan Collins -- who was never serious about Obamacare repeal, and voted accordingly -- stubbornly refused play ball at every turn. No, it's the decisions by Alaska's Lisa Murkowski and Arizona's John McCain to willfully and deliberately derail the repeal train before a final legislative product even existed that truly burn. It's difficult to decide which Senator's actions are more indefensible. Murkowski's tactics are arguably more obnoxious, having vocally supported a 2015 repeal bill, knowing that her vote at the time would have no real-world consequences. Here she is, less than two years ago:
?? Murkowski slamming Obamacare in '15, prior to supporting (vetoed) repeal. Voted against debating a bill this year. https://t.co/VvUsi72Ymn— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) July 28, 2017
Once a Republican president was installed at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Murkowksi didn't merely flip-flop on the 2015 bill (which could at least be justified from a policy standpoint); she resolutely refused to vote for anything at all -- including a motion to proceed to debate. When the possibility for real, consequential Obamacare repeal or reform presented itself, she morphed into a reflexive obstructionist, playing absolutely no constructive role. Saying "no" to everything would be understandable coming from a Democrat; they've done everything in their power to protect their imploding, harmful law. But this is a woman who campaigned as an Obamacare opponent, railed against the scheme's demonstrable failures in her state, and voted for a sweeping "clean repeal" package roughly 19 months ago. But when an opportunity for meaningful action arrived, she became an implacable Chuck Schumer ally, casting vote after vote to effectively enshrine Obamacare.
Then there's John McCain, whom the angry Left reviled as death-worthy traitor, then celebrated as a heroic maverick, over the span of a few days. Like Murkowski, McCain also voted to approve the 2015 repeal bill. Then he continued to posture as an anti-Obamacare crusader in Arizona throughout his 2016 re-election campaign, exploiting the issue to beat back a primary challenger and to defeat an Obamacare-supporting Democrat last fall. This was not a minor point in his campaign. Here's an ad he ran during the race, blasting Obamacare's (disproportionately deleterious) impact on Arizonans and casting himself as leader in the fight to uproot the law:
Early this week, he flew back to Washington after being diagnosed with brain cancer, dramatically casting the decisive vote to open debate on Obamacare repeal options (despite Lisa Murkowski's best efforts). In a widely-hailed speech on the Senate floor immediately after the vote, he sounded notes espousing bipartisanship and a return to regular order. But he also explained his decision this way:
Our healthcare insurance system is a mess. We all know it, those who support Obamacare and those who oppose it. Something has to be done...I voted for the motion to proceed to allow debate to continue and amendments to be offered. I will not vote for the bill as it is today. It's a shell of a bill right now. We all know that. I have changes urged by my state's governor that will have to be included to earn my support for final passage of any bill. I know many of you will have to see the bill changed substantially for you to support it...If this process ends in failure, which seem[s] likely, then let's return to regular order.
He went on to extol the virtues of imperfect progress: "Incremental progress, compromises that each side criticize but also accept, just plain muddling through to chip away at problems and keep our enemies from doing their worst isn't glamorous or exciting. It doesn't feel like a political triumph. But it's usually the most we can expect from our system of government, operating in a country as diverse and quarrelsome and free as ours," he said. To recap, the goal is often attaining modest, incremental progress -- which sometimes requires "muddling through." Presumably those lessons would apply to fixing a "mess" of a healthcare system, which is why he supported "allow[ing] debate to continue and amendments to be offered," in search of "substantial" changes. Until he didn't.
If McCain had ultimately voted down whatever package may have emerged from a conference committee because he genuinely believed it would not improve upon the disastrous status quo against which he'd campaigned, that would be one thing. But he didn't do that. He personally guaranteed that "this process [would] end in failure" by making a proactive decision to ensure that failure arrived -- and arrived before all options were exhausted. He did so after voting in support of a version of the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA) package, which would likely have served as a major basis for a conference compromise. Rather than waiting to see if the eventual legislation resembled something closer to a plan he supported, he slammed the door shut to any eventual legislation being crafted. In light of his years of political statements, paired with his votes this week, this rationalization does not hold water:
Skinny repeal fell short because it fell short of our promise to repeal & replace Obamacare w/ meaningful reform https://t.co/tZISIvccOO— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) July 28, 2017
It "fell short" due to 1 vote: Yours. Foreclosing any vote on a finalized bill that may have come much closer to fulfilling your promise. ?? https://t.co/vTPbPKMRzc— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) July 28, 2017
Prior to his fateful vote, McCain reportedly told Democrats that he just wanted to rip off the bandaid and move on to a defense bill:
What did McCain tell that big gaggle of Senate Ds during vote? “Let’s get this over with. I really want to do NDAA.” https://t.co/PYrNBccLHi— Seung Min Kim (@seungminkim) July 28, 2017
That doesn't quite sound like "muddling through" in pursuit of incremental progress, does it? And it certainly doesn't do anything to provide relief to the many Arizonans suffering under the weight of Obamacare's accelerating collapse -- which was a central issue in his successful election-year pitch to them. McCain, Murkowski and Collins have fetishized "bipartisanship," and have evidently concluded that they'd prefer to "fix" and ensconce Obamacare, rather than repeal and replace it. If they have any interest in partially redeeming themselves in the eyes of voters who trusted them on this issue -- or to prove that their years of rhetoric about Obamacare's endemic flaws wasn't craven nonsense -- they will take the lead in the bipartisan process they so desired. And they'll begin by making unmistakably clear to Democratic leaders that although they acted as temporary allies in helping scuttle their own party's repeal aspirations, they will insist upon structural, conservative reforms to the law as a new plan takes shape.
They should also warn that if Democrats dig in on a big government bailout "solution" that doesn't address the system's lasting flaws (not to mention the small fact that Republicans won three national elections running against them), they'll walk away and re-enter talks with McConnell to revive "repeal and replace." Absent a credible threat like that, Schumer will have all the leverage, confident that he can rely on three Republican Senators to serve as a backstop as he takes their party to the cleaners under the guise of cross-party "cooperation." Muddling through to achieve incremental progress will take hard work and resolve. It will require standing firm to achieve compromises that Democrats "will criticize but also accept." But if the attitude is closer to "let's get this over with" and move on to other things I care about more, all leverage will be relinquished, and high-minded peans to bipartisanship will be fully exposed as a sham and a ruse.