The morning after the Republican’s last-ditch effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act failed to pass the Senate, Democratic leadership hurried to wave the flag of bipartisanship.
Both Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer emphasized the need for Republicans and Democrats to work together particularly to reform the ACA. “Congress must finally pivot to the long overdue bipartisan work to update and improve the Affordable Care Act and to continue to lower Americans’ health care cost,” Pelosi said in a Friday morning statement. If Pelosi’s statement was the stale stuff of everyday political rhetoric, then Schumer’s response to the early morning victory was more nostalgically enthusiastic. “Let’s think of the future, not of the political victory,” Schumer said in his press conference, adding that Congress should work to stabilize the individual insurance market by permanently ensuring cost-share reduction for insurers (here’s a helpful explainer on what that means). What a rousing call to action.
If Schumer’s press conference seemed uninspired, still chock-full of health policy lingo, then it was because the Senate majority leader was already looking for compromises with Republicans rather than offering a vision for what the ACA could look like or even a more definitive health care policy.
Schumer reassured that this bipartisanship was possible. “A whole number of Republicans who are usually more quiet and conservative came over and thanked me and said they want to do it,” Schumer said. He didn’t indicate who these quiet conservatives are; he simply posited that they existed and, even after voting for three ACA repeal bills, were suddenly willing to work together to enhance Obamacare. “We yearn to work together,” he added.
Schumer seems to think that bipartisanship is a possibility or, at least, the road Americans want Democrats to take. “I hope what John McCain did will be regarded in history as a turning point,” Schumer said, offering up McCain’s dissenting vote on the “skinny repeal,” as a kind of heroic action (a narrative that’s coalescing yet again around McCain, despite the fact that he could have voted against the motion to proceed on Tuesday, preventing the unnecessary morning melodrama in the first place). McCain is no maverick—he practically birthed the Tea Party and death panels—but that image works for Democrats, a shining example of a man willing to buck his party’s leadership and rise above politics. And Democrats are happy enough to repeat such romance.
But if Schumer wanted to sell the romance of the maverick, he also tapped into the fictional nostalgia of the reasoned Republican party. “Republicans didn’t campaign on what they proposed—tax cuts to the rich, slashing Medicaid—but what happened was the hard right, Koch brother wing of the Republican party has too much influence,” Schumer said. Republicans have been running for nearly seven years on repealing Obamacare, so it’s unclear who exactly Schumer was referring to. Even Republicans who have branded themselves as wonks (i.e. Paul Ryan) and everyday nice guys (i.e. Ben Sasse) are committed to slashing Medicaid, repealing Obamacare and cutting taxes for the wealthy—they are part of what Schumer sees as the “hard right.”
The problem is not that the “hard right” has “too much influence,” it’s that they form the ideological foundation of the Republican party and, frankly, always have. There are few differences on policy between the “hard right” and the nostalgic right, only differences on delivery. Just because the Paul Ryans of Congress don’t sound like Donald Trump doesn’t mean they don’t agree with him. Schumer wasn’t even willing to align Mitch McConnell with the “hard right.” During his press conference, he said that blaming McConnell for the nightmare health care votes wasn’t “fair.”
On Twitter, Schumer reiterated these points, thanking “Sens. Murkowski, Collins, and McCain for showing such courage, strength, and principle.” “This is how the Senate works. This is ‘regular order.’ We can work together. We will. Democrats are ready to sit down & improve our system,” Schumer wrote in a follow-up. Regular order—what a simultaneously insidious and empty phrase; what an incredible way to describe the last week of bills no one had read and a decision to vote on repealing Obamacare in the early hours of a Friday morning.
Bipartisanship has always been a meaningless phrase—pulled out when one party doesn’t have enough votes or a proxy for the will of the American people—but today it seemed particularly uninspired. It seemed like Democrats simply didn’t learn anything from the protestors who showed up at both the House and the Senate or from the acrimonious narratives of health that defined the passage of the House bill. Friday morning’s vote was a win (likely a temporary win) but it was hardly the “turning point” that Schumer claimed. Instead, it was transformed into a kind of Democratic status quo laden with familiar and uninspired political fiction—heroic mavericks and quiet, reasonable Republicans. It felt like Democrats didn’t learn anything.