Last week the Trump administration celebrated the passage of the Affordable Health Care Act (AHCA) bythe House of Representatives. It is very unusual to hold a ceremony for a bill that has only passed one house of Congress; and there is no guarantee that the bill in its current form will pass the Senate. Nonetheless, the administration was gloating over bill that if it became law would accomplish three major things. First, AHCA would cause many Americans to lose or not be able to get healthcare. Second, it would cause financial duress for many Americans when confronted with inevitable health concerns. Third, ACHA would reduce taxes for the wealthiest Americans, thus making Donald Trump and his rich friends even richer. There may be more politic ways to say those things, but those will be the major impacts of this bill if it becomes law.
The process by which the bill passed was unmistakably Trumpian. The bluster, the failure to negotiate with Congress, the President’s seeming unfamiliarity with the bill, and the outsized promises about what the bill will accomplish are all things we have come to associate with our 45th President. The bill itself, however, is the product of the broader Republican consensus on healthcare generally and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) specifically. The Republican Party has been promising a repeal of the ACA almost since it passed in 2010. All of the Republican presidential candidates last year promised this repeal. Amazingly, although there was a consensus on the need to repeal the ACA, Congressional Republicans made little effort to agree upon, or even begin the process of crafting in earnest, there own healthcare bill. This left an opening for this shoddy, quickly patched together and cruel piece of legislation to be proposed by the Trump administration.
One of the more baffling, at least on the surface, aspects of the AHCA is that the people who could well be hurt the most by this skew older and rural. This is the same demographic, at least among white people, who voted for President Trump and Congressional Republicans in substantial proportions. It is very unusual for a party to knowingly pass a piece of legislation that will be uniquely harmful to one of their most significant bases of support. Most of the time when this happens, the party in question takes a big hit in the next election. Many Democrats are indeed anticipating big gains in the 2018 midterm elections because of Republican support for AHCA.
Those assumptions, however, probably no longer hold because while the AHCA may be more or less a product of the takeover of the Republican Party by the far right, the courage to pass the legislation lies in the recognition by Republican congress that American politics are changing dramatically. More precisely, Republicans in Congress do not have to worry about losing the next election badly because the Republican Party in congress, state legislatures, the Justice Department and the courts are working to make sure that our democracy is sufficiently weekend by 2018 so that electoral consequences for this disastrous law will be minimized.
Many state legislatures continue to move forward with proposed laws limiting voting rights, and even the right to free assembly, knowing the Jeff Sessions led Justice Department will back them up. The President himself still talks aboutDemocratic voter fraud, something that is essentially nonexistent, as a way to plant the seed among his political base that any Democratic victory is fraudulent, while the White House press operation lies and conceals information from the American people. This is the kind of democratic rollback that offers a buffer to ruling parties that pass unpopular and damaging legislation while enriching themselves.
The twin pillars of the Trump administration thus far have been far right policies and democratic rollback. It is important to distinguish between these two, as they have different consequences and must be opposed with different strategies, but increasingly there is synergy between them as well. AHCA is an example of that. While it is true that any Republican President would want to pass a similar bill, one that was not actively seeking to undermine American democracy would have been forced to temper the bill to avoid an electoral disaster in 2018. Trump and now the Republicans in Congress, however, had no such concern.
The growing Republican support for AHCA, and for the Trump agenda generally, suggests that the GOP is transforming from a political party in a competitive system that advocates for its far right positions but that must also be aware of political considerations, into the ruling party of a government committing to restricting democracy. It also is more evidence that Republican Congress is comfortable ignoring Trump’s efforts to limit democracy if the administration supports their far right policies. If this continues not only will there be no rigorous congressional investigations or impeachment hearings, but very possibly elections in 2018 that will not meet international standards of democracy.