As the dust settles around the now-dead but surely soon-to-return health bill, a familiar call rings out around the Beltway: Hey, what about some dang bipartisanship for once? Remember when senators used to drink their whiskey together? That was good, right? It’s a seductive thought. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all got along?
It would also be nice if the GOP wasn’t a ceaseless engine of top-down class warfare, single-mindedly focused on one tried-and-true method of increasing personal liberty: Allowing insurance companies to bilk the sick and dying, when they don’t simply write them off altogether. Here is a fact that both politicians and pundits should get through their dense skulls: Bipartisanship is not viable when two parties don’t share the same goal. And in the case of healthcare reform, it’s not valuable if it means accepting policies that decrease health coverage. Bipartisanship would lead to bad policy. It would be terrible politics.
Vox’s Andrew Prokop writes today that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should “save his legacy” by crafting a bipartisan deal with the Democrats that would create a “fix” for some of the Affordable Care Act’s problems, like insurers pulling out of certain marketplaces, without cutting Medicaid or lowering taxes on the wealthy. Some senators, he notes, have “already made clear they want to” fix those issues with the proposed bills.
It’s very hard to imagine any bill that would both manage to gain a single Republican vote without making the current problems of a private insurance-based healthcare system worse. Jonathan Cohn, for example, argued recently that the answer lay in “winnowing” the bill “way down” and “focusing exclusively on the reforms of private insurance ― the new rules on whom and what insurers cover, the tax credits to make coverage more affordable, and the individual mandate.” Examples of the ideas Republicans favored included, he said, getting rid of or scaling back those regulations “by, for example, reducing requirements on the services insurers must cover or giving carriers more flexibility to vary premiums by age.” Cohn suggested that Democrats might accept “some modifications in the rules ― just as long as they weren’t too severe.” But how? How could Congress craft a bill that allowed insurers to cover fewer people—which is what “scaling back regulations” means—without… covering fewer people?
Which brings us to the politics of it. Republicans do not share the Democrats’ goal of covering more people, and Democrats need to make that argument.
There’s a popular idea that bipartisanship is a good thing, a goal in itself and not just a method for getting stuff done. Polls tend to show that the public will say they want the parties to work together; 69 percent of respondents in a March CNN poll wanted the Democrats to work with Trump. While Republicans spent all of the Obama years promising inaction and obstruction, and becoming increasingly extreme, Democrats preach the gospel of bipartisanship:
The problem with this message is that it implies that Republicans give a shit about expanding access to healthcare. That’s obviously and extremely untrue of the conservatives who bailed on this latest iteration of the bill because it wasn’t cruel enough, but it’s also untrue of “moderates” like Sens. Collins and Capito. Why would you generously imply their intentions are good?
Instead, the Democrats should use this as an opportunity to highlight everything wrong with the Republican approach to healthcare. If they want to repeal the ACA and replace it with something that doesn’t make it cheaper and easier to get healthcare for everyone, tell voters that. Tell them: The GOP doesn’t care if you die. Tell them the GOP wants you to spend your last hours on the phone to your insurance company, trying to figure out if your chemo is covered. Run Randy Bryce’s announcement ad in every district. Make the case for what you believe in, rather than serving voters a big bag of irregular Oreos with a huge ribbon saying We Tried, Sorry on it.
Voters don’t actually care whether you work together. They care about results, and whether the government is doing things that materially benefit them. They might profess a love for bipartisanship in the abstract, when a pollster asks them, because it sounds like the right thing to say. It’s one of those abstract concepts that’s accepted to be a Good Thing for no good reason, like civility or orange juice. But voters care a whole ton more whether they can pay for their health insurance, or whether getting hit by a car or having asthma or even having children might bankrupt them through medical debt, than whether you worked with the other side of the aisle.
Democrats are in dire need of a message; neither the party nor the voters seem to know what the it stands for. “We worked with Republicans, the party that hates your guts and tried to pass that terrible bill you hated and whose leader is Donald Trump, to pass a healthcare bill slightly less shit than Obamacare, which everyone also hated until the alternative became the return of preexisting conditions and the end of Medicaid” is not that message. “We want guaranteed coverage and access to care for every single American, and they don’t”—that’s a good message. Just one woman’s take.