Close your eyes for a few seconds and remember the despair you felt one year ago, while a Trump presidency was still a looming but unavoidable nightmare.
Donald Trump, a man with no empathy and even less grasp of policy nuances, was the president-elect. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), a man who literally fantasized about cutting health benefits for poor people during his college keg parties, had spent the Obama years rallying his fellow Republican lawmakers around a singularly cruel agenda.
A year ago, Obamacare repeal seemed like a near certainty, as did deep cuts to health programs created in the mid-1960s. Ryan’s plan to repeal Medicare and replace it with a voucher program would have driven up seniors’ out-of-pocket costs by as much as 40 percent. Republicans planned to cut Medicaid by as much as 50 percent in the first decade — then gradually phase it out entirely.
And that’s just what they proposed to do to health care. Ryan’s budget sought deep cuts to food stamps. It slashed Pell Grants. And there’s always a risk, whenever Republicans control the government, that Social Security will be privatized as well.
It is important not to minimize just how much Trump and the Republican Congress have done to disfigure the United States into a meaner, less welcoming nation. Trump promised crueler policies towards immigrants, and he’s delivered. The Republican tax bill loots the public commons, destabilizes insurance markets, and will lead to thousands of deaths every year among Americans no longer able to afford medical care. American diplomacy is an omnishambles. Neil Gorsuch combines the harsh ideology of Justice Clarence Thomas with the smug self-righteousness of the Mayor from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
But the country we live in today is still so much better than the one we could have expected one year ago. Obamacare is bruised but still kicking. Medicare and Medicaid remain largely unharmed for now. Social Security has not been turned over to Goldman Sachs.
There are many reasons why the apocalypse never came. The Resistance to Trump began early in his presidency, with a series of massive demonstrations that emboldened his opponents. Groups like Indivisible seized upon this energy, channeling rage at America’s groppenführer into a sophisticated grassroots lobbying campaign. Women and voters of color organized. Black voters in Alabama did the unthinkable — electing a Democrat to fill Jefferson Beauregard Sessions’ old Senate seat.
But the Resistance could not have achieved so much without one crucial ally — incompetence. Time and time again, Trump and many of his fellow Republicans revealed that they have no idea how to govern. They understand little about policy. They turn their backs on key potential allies. And they seem allergic to the very idea that politics is a game of coalition building.
America is a healthier, wealthier, far safer place today than it would have been if Republicans weren’t so godawful at their jobs.
The price of greed
“Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” — Donald J. Trump, February 28, 2017.
Once upon a time, Obamacare was unpopular. Republicans spent years making it so. For seven years they peppered it with attacks, sabotaged the law, made disingenuous claims about the law’s impact, and promised to repeal it the moment they got the chance. And their attacks worked! On the eve of the 2016 election, more Americans disapproved of the Affordable Care Act than approved of it.
Yet somehow, after seven years of promises, Republicans entered 2017 with full control of the federal government and without a coherent plan to pass their own replacement health care bill. The failed effort to pass Trumpcare was a saga of cancelled votes, infighting, poor vote counting, and a midnight surprise.
But more than that, it was a saga of greed. It is impossible to know what would have happened if Republicans had simply tried to repeal as many provisions of Obamacare as they could under the Senate’s arcane rules, without touching other, more longstanding programs. What they did instead was lard the bill down with Republican fantasies that fueled opposition to the bill.
The House Trumpcare bill would have fundamentally restructured Medicaid while slashing health spending on the poor. The Senate Trumpcare bill went even further, gradually phasing out Medicaid in it entirety.
Trumpcare was opposed by virtually everyone with a stake in the health care industry, including the American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association, and the AARP. Even the health insurance lobby warned that Trumpcare could destabilize insurance markets, cut funding that helps people afford coverage, and “weaken Medicaid coverage of mental health and opioid addiction.”
Indeed, one of the biggest surprises of the entire Trumpcare process was that Republicans seemed completely uninterested in working with wealthy interest groups and powerful lobbyists to design a bill that was acceptable to the health care industry. This wasn’t a minor fault. Doctors, hospitals, health insurers and the like are all self-interested parties, and their lobbyists’ words should not be taken as gospel by lawmakers. But industry groups can also warn lawmakers if a bill is likely to trigger an adverse selection death spiral. Or close down hospitals. Or defund clinics that help keep the opioid epidemic at bay.
With few allies, an unpopular proposal, and scathing Congressional Budget Office reports showing that tens of millions of people would lose health coverage if Trumpcare became law, Republicans did something President Obama was never able to accomplish. They made Obamacare popular.
Myth meets reality
“I’m looking at the Republicans and seeing things that are like they have a death wish. Whether its the Ryan plan — which is a death wish.” — Donald J. Trump, June 1, 2011.
There are two Paul Ryans. Or, at least, there are two media narratives about what kind of man Ryan is.
Among policy wonks, Paul Ryan is a cruel joke. His numbers don’t add up. His proposals have ridiculous unintended consequences. As Jonathan Cohn and Jeffrey Young once wrote, Ryan once tried to “replace 20 million people’s health insurance with 37 pages of talking points.”
Nevertheless, the myth that Ryan — who has beautiful blue eyes and is capable of stringing multiple impressive-sounding numbers together in a complete sentence — is some kind of wonk persisted among the political press long after true policy experts wised up.
They never should have fallen for it. Ryan’s Medicare vouchers proposal would have driven up health costs for seniors by more than a third even if he didn’t cut a single dime from Medicare. His tax proposals often relied on a “magic asterisk” to pay for themselves. His proposal to privatize Social Security would have bought up so many private investments that “by 2050, every single stock or bond in the United States would be owned by a Social Security account. This would mean that the portfolio managers at the Social Security Administration would more or less control the entire means of production in the United States.”
Nice work, comrade.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is a much more complicated figure. While Ryan is likely to be remembered, if at all, as a minor figure in American history who failed to convince the nation to dismantle its safety net, McConnell deserves to be remembered alongside historic senators like John C. Calhoun, Strom Thurmond, and Harry Byrd, Sr.
McConnell’s genius is that he figured out that the Senate relied on a series of informal norms — filibusterers are only to be used rarely, Supreme Court nominees receive timely confirmation hearings, senators do not waste limited floor debate time solely for the purpose of running down the clock — that aren’t actually codified in law or enforceable against a bloc of senators that does not respect them. By defying these norms, McConnell was able to slow President Obama’s agenda to a crawl even when Democrats enjoyed a supermajority in the Senate. When McConnell became majority leader, he gained the power to halt legislation and confirmations altogether.
But a genius for obstruction does not translate into the more subtle mix of policy expertise and coalition building that a lawmaker must master to actually push major legislation through Congress. As Adam Jentleson, a former senior aide to Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), wrote last September before debate began on the tax bill, “McConnell has never authored a single piece of major legislation that became law, nor has he successfully shepherded a single major bill to passage as leader.”
(Jentleson now serves as Senior Strategic Advisor to the Center for American Progress Action Fund. ThinkProgress is an editorially independent project of CAP/AF)
Indeed, McConnell himself does not appear to disagree with this assessment. He told Bloomberg’s Sahil Kapur on Tuesday that the tax bill represents his second-greatest achievement — second to McConnell’s successful effort to hold a vacant Supreme Court seat hostage for a year until Donald Trump could fill it.
Republicans took over government, in other words, with a goon in the White House, a charlatan leading the House, and a pioneering destroyer with little experience in actually building things leading the Senate. It should not surprise anyone that they stumbled out the gate.
“Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat?'” — Donald J. Trump, November 11, 2017.
So 2017 has been a far better year than anyone could have reasonably expected while Trump was still the president-elect. Our safety net is frayed in a few places but still holding together. Ayn Rand would still be appalled by our generosity to the least fortunate.
But, as the passage of the Republicans’ tax bill demonstrates, even the most bumbling of lawmakers can score a big win every now and then when they control the entire government. Speaker Ryan is already bragging about his plans to attack Medicare and Medicaid as part of a broader “entitlement reform” agenda in 2018. What Ryan lacks in basic math skills, he will try to make up for in raw determination.
America also faces three other potentially catastrophic risks in 2018 and beyond, even if the tax bill is the last piece of major legislation signed by Donald Trump.
The first is the most frightening. The man who controls the largest nuclear arsenal in the world thinks it is appropriate to taunt the leaders of other nuclear powers on Twitter. All human life on Earth is in danger so long as Mr. Trump holds the nuclear codes.
The second risk is that liberal democracy will itself be undermined by Trump or by the forces that enabled him to enter the White House. “Trump is an authoritarian—but by instinct rather than by ideology,” writes Yascha Mounk, a scholar who studies right-wing populist movements. “It is blindingly obvious that he is an amateurish hack of a president, who doesn’t have anything close to a strategic plan to concentrate power in his own hands,” Mounk continues, “but it is also blindingly obvious that he is unwilling to tolerate any rightful limits on his authority, and seeks to weaken or abolish independent institutions whenever they frustrate his ambitions.”
Trump lacks the bureaucratic sophistication of leaders like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, all of whom have turned their nations sharply away from liberal democracy. But that does not mean that Trump will not undermine key democratic institutions such as the judiciary, the Justice Department, or a free press while he is in office.
And, as Mounk has warned, the fact that the United States managed to elect one leader with authoritarian instincts means that we could do it again — and the next leader may not be quite so incompetent.
The third risk is at once the most subtle and the most likely to play out. Though Trump has largely bumbled his way through the presidency, he’s delegated judicial selection to conservative operatives like the Federalist Society’s Leonard Leo and White House Counsel Donald McGahn. Despite a few recent stumbles, these operatives have been extraordinarily successful in filling the bench with judges who are both deeply intelligent and shamelessly ideological.
The mere fact that Neil Gorsuch occupies a seat on the Supreme Court rather than President Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland means that court decisions undermining voting rights and unleashing a torrent of money into American elections are entrenched. Trump’s judges are likely to accelerate this trend, making it harder for candidates who do not share Trump’s views to win elections.
Many judicial appointees, including Gorsuch, also have ambitious plans to dismantle the federal government’s ability to govern, even when elected officials more similar to President Obama are calling the shots. In much the same way that most of the Republican-appointed justices embraced novel legal theories as part of an effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the Supreme Court’s post-Trump majority could deem any major legislation enacted by a Democratic Congress to be constitutionally unsound.
So Trump’s opponents, and supporters of liberal democracy generally, still have a great deal to fear as Trump enters his second year in the White House.
But, if nothing else, the events of 2017 show that dragons can be slain. Especially when those dragons aren’t particularly good at their jobs.