For progressives, the on-going civil war among House Republicans over Obamacare has inspired delicious schadenfreude as Trump and Republican leaders suffer at the hands of that small band of ideological House Republicans so committed to their political purity that they may be on the verge of derailing the entire Trump-Ryan agenda.
But though it is entertaining to watch this GOP catfight, progressives and anyone else who supports democratic values had better hope the Freedom Caucus stays committed, refusing to give an inch. I strongly suspect they won’t surrender, for they have an almost religious commitment to the notion of “repeal and replace.” Their rigidity might defeat Trump and House Speaker Ryan’s true master plan: of gutting health care to pass a huge, permanent tax plan for billionaires.
Confused? Don’t be—for Trump, Ryan, the House Republican leadership, and even the Freedom Caucus, this all goes back to the 2013 government shutdown and the 2015 budget reconciliation fight, which Obama largely won, outmaneuvering House Republicans to rewrite George W. Bush’s tax cuts and restore modest tax increases on the wealthiest Americans. Obama could do this because the Bush tax plan had a 10-year expiration date unless the Bush administration could produce a credible budget document establishing that the tax cuts wouldn’t increase the deficit after 10 years. They couldn’t.
But give credit to Bush: at least his team was honest enough to admit that, as every standard economic test determined, deficit reduction under his plan would never happen.
Fast-forward to February 2017, when Trump’s snake-oil-budget sales team was hoping to produce a document declaring they could fund a massive defense-spending increase along with the Ryan-Trump $3 trillion tax cut, with 97 percent of the gains going to the top one percent (Trump’s team readily admits the wealthy get the most in his plan). So they went to town with cuts, slashing both the State Department and EPA nearly in half, gutting public housing, and eliminating medical research.
Problem is, all the snake-oil budget wonks in Washington weren’t able to find more than half the savings needed to invoke that Senate rule that would make Trump’s tax plan permanent with only 51 votes. However, during the budget wars with Obama, then-House budget leader Paul Ryan and his flunky—er, right hand and future House Budget Committee Chair Tom Price, offered a plan to gut Obamacare to gain $1.2 trillion in savings. The savings were only on paper, but under Senate rules, that would be enough.
Progressives and anyone else who supports democratic values had better hope the Freedom Caucus stays committed, refusing to give an inch.
Ryan, of course, is now Speaker, Price is now Secretary of HHS and what most of the media fails to understand about the Ryan-Trump-Price AHCA plan is that it really doesn’t give a good goddam about health care services in any meaningful sense. Rather it is simply a plan Ryan’s team designed to produce $1.2 trillion dollars on paper so they could get started on the tax plan. The media still didn’t get it even after it was revealed that nearly 10 percent of the entire House health care bill was nothing but a detailed a plan to remove 377 PowerBall and MegaMillions winners from Medicaid, all to save a couple of million bucks.
Unfortunately for Ryan (and Trump) the Freedom Caucus remembers the 2015 reconciliation fight differently; at that time Ryan, Price, and Republican Senate leaders agreed to Freedom Caucus demands to repeal every penny of government funding for Obamacare. Today, they want it all and they want it now, not in a gradually implemented repeal that won’t take effect for several months (intended to give both Trump and Congress enough time to pass a tax cut and a new health care system—or so they say). Caucus members see Trump and Ryan as only seeking savings for their tax cut, while trying to score political points to preserve as many popular (or, as the Freedom Caucusers say, “pro-government”) Obamacare programs as they can.
Even more bizarre was the House leadership’s reaction to the fierce opposition from the Freedom Caucus, and Senators named Paul, Cruz, and Cotton. Ryan and his cohorts insist they were “surprised” by the Caucus’s reaction. That sounded a lot like Captain Renault telling Rick he was “shocked, shocked to find there was gambling going on” in the Café Americain in Casablanca. Because every Republican in Congress is well aware that the Tea Party and the Freedom Caucus are the culmination of American right-wing ideology, and have no interest in compromising on their ideological principles.
The story goes back 70 years and involves two groups wholly dissatisfied with the post-WWII mainstream Republican Party: the anti-union/anti-communist corporate faction that included Robert Welch and Joseph Coors, who co-founded the John Birch Society, with the financial support of Fred Koch. And the religious fundamentalists, like Paul Weyrich and Jerry Falwell. There is no need to recount this history here, especially with so many excellent accounts of the Kochs, the rise of fundamentalism in the GOP, and the many sideshows, like the influence of Ayn Rand on conservative thought. Much of this is documented in the outstanding work of Washington Spectator contributor Rick Perlstein, who has brilliantly documented the rise of the new American right in his books.
But in the 1980s-1990s, as right-wing ideologues gained influence in the White House and Congress, they had a new problem: how to govern. Two individuals best represent what happened next, Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist. Both advocated a form of what comparative political scientists call “managed democracy.” To give you an idea what that means, most political scientists classify Putin’s Russia as an highly advanced “managed democracy,” i.e. not quite a full authoritarian state, because a few dissenting voices are still tolerated, but it is getting there.
Norquist’s version of “managed democracy” was essentially government by ideology: as he told his Harvard classmate, former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, he would stamp out liberalism by recruiting politicians who “will make it so that a Democrat cannot govern as a Democrat.” To the pure at heart, Republicans were as big a problem as liberals: thus, Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, along with groups like the Heritage Foundation that today define authentic conservatism for the party. More recently, the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity was established to purge ideologically impure Republicans in primaries. Their decades of work inevitably led to the congressional Freedom Caucus, which stands for those who believe in governing from an ideological foundation.
Significantly, Norquist has never held public office. Newt Gingrich has, so his approach to “managed democracy” relied more on fixing the system, through gerrymandered districts, voter ID laws that both limit voting rights while controlling who is permitted to vote, and most important, Gingrich’s 1995 decree that House Republicans would govern by a “majority of the majority.” Today it is misnamed the “Hastert Rule,” but there is a better known and more appropriate term for “majority of the majority” and that is “one-party rule.”
In today’s Republican House, no bill passes unless a majority of the Republican House majority supports it. Thus the Obamacare battle now comes down to Ryan and Trump using their “majority of the majority” tactics to cow both the House and Senate into passing a bill masquerading as “health care reform” to finance their wet dream of a tax plan for the super rich. Meanwhile, a small clique of ideological purists who insist the Ryan-Trump bill is a political sell-out that protects too much of Obamacare is standing in the way. So despite universal opposition to their bill being loudly expressed by medical societies, hospital associations, the AARP, and dozens of other interest groups, House Republican leaders are doing all they can to strongarm the bill’s passage. And a few Freedom Caucus leaders are invoking their version of Martin Luther’s message to the Diet of Worms: “Here I shall make my stand, I can do nothing else.”
The irony here is that progressives or anyone else who opposes Trump’s larger agenda now have no choice but to cheer on the Freedom Caucus. While its members may not support a single principle progressives believe in, they are political insiders, and for now, the only hope America has of derailing the train before it leaves the station.
Peter Lindstrom is a political consultant and writer living in Washington, D.C.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated.