A lot has happened since then-candidate Donald Trump announced to a crowd of cheering supporters on Oct. 25, 2016, “My first day in office, I am going to ask Congress to put a bill on my desk getting rid of this disastrous law and replacing it with reforms that expand choice, freedom, affordability. You’re going to have such great health care at a tiny fraction of the cost. And it’s going to be so easy.” Well, here we are. We are reminded that everything easy to do in Washington has already been done.
By any measure, the Republican effort at repeal and replace has been a debacle. GOP messaging was off, votes were not secured and intraparty fighting over what to include in the Republican health care bill never ceased. The good news is repeal and replace is not over, but things will have to get a lot worse for voters and families before there is much incentive for a relaunch.
Anyway, for years, Republicans in Congress passed one measure after the next calling for the repeal and replacement of Obamacare. But when it came time to actually roll back years of harmful health care policy and restore market-based coverage, we found ourselves divided — unable to compromise. We were unable to govern.
So, what lessons can we learn from the repeal-and-replace train wreck?
Success in politics is often dependent on managing expectations. We cannot fall into the classic trap of overpromising and underdelivering. Democrats took 14 months to pass Obamacare with 60 senators most of the time, but Republicans swore to deliver on the party’s biggest campaign promise with 52 senators in just a few months.
Never take a congressional vote for granted. This point should not be overanalyzed because it was only four members — Sens. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, Susan Collins, R-Maine, Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Jerry Moran, R-Kansas — but their opposition was still enough to destroy the work of GOP leadership and the rest of the caucus. Paul and Collins were never going to come around, but as a political party, Republicans could not afford to stop gathering support for the bill. And clearly, Lee and Moran were not convinced. I think everyone in Washington was blindsided by Moran.
The president’s input needs to be informed and consistent. Just a month after praising the House health care bill as a “great plan” that was “very, very incredibly well-crafted,” President Trump gave the Democrats and their allies in the media all the fuel they could ever ask for by calling that same bill “ mean.”
Don’t forget to convince the voters of why they should support what you are doing. This was a big issue, there should have been a big sales campaign. For legislation that touched on roughly one-fifth of the U.S. economy, the GOP should have launched a major public affairs operation to turn the tide of public support in their favor. And that meant more than a few advertisements on Fox News. The fact is, a slogan — “repeal and replace” — is no substitute for a plan. But hindsight is 20/20. And to give GOP leadership the benefit of the doubt, everyone thought something called “repeal and replace” would garner the necessary Republican votes. Nevertheless, the GOP’s lackluster attempt to engage voters was a mistake.
These lessons are not new and, maybe, therein lies a lesson. We should have treated repeal and replace like a major campaign. But now, we can’t just shrug and pretend that nothing happened. We have to take some criticism to heart and reflect on how to recover our credibility as a party and as a governing majority.
Obamacare may still be the law of the land, but the push for repeal and replace isn’t necessarily over. Just as former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour told me last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, will “continue to try to improve the health-care reform bill and return to it when he thinks he has the votes.” And that is exactly what is happening.
Members of Congress will soon head home and, starting in August, September and October, their constituents’ deductibles will begin going through the roof. Their premiums will spike. If we thought Democratic protesters were cause for alarm, imagine how outraged actual Republicans will be when they show up at town halls.
Republicans need to learn from this — and fast.
Ed Rogers is a political consultant and veteran of the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush White Houses. He is the chairman of the lobbying and communications firm BGR Group, which he founded with former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour in 1991.