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National Politics|By Charlie Cook, March 31, 2017
This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on March 28, 2017

With Fri­day’s col­lapse of the Re­pub­lic­an ef­fort to de­cap­it­ate Pres­id­ent Obama’s Af­ford­able Care Act, it would be an un­der­state­ment to say that the GOP is in dis­ar­ray.

There isn’t much of a de­fense against the charge that after vot­ing more than 60 times over sev­en years to re­peal Obama­care, they couldn’t come up with any­thing to re­place it that could pass the House, let alone the Sen­ate, when the vote really coun­ted. A sub­stan­tial ele­ment of the very con­ser­vat­ive House Free­dom Caucus didn’t think the Amer­ic­an Health Care Act was enough of an im­prove­ment on the much-re­viled Obama­care, while a num­ber of Re­pub­lic­an mod­er­ates and mem­bers in swing dis­tricts felt that it was too dra­coni­an.

Much of the blame is fo­cused on the Free­dom Caucus, a group that many say wouldn’t take yes for an an­swer. The truth is that for many of the most con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers of the House (and a few in the Sen­ate), their view of the role of gov­ern­ment is so min­im­al­ist that many would prefer the gov­ern­ment just get out of the health care busi­ness al­to­geth­er. Al­most any­thing ac­cept­able to this bloc of con­ser­vat­ives would have a very dif­fi­cult time gath­er­ing enough sup­port from the cen­ter to pass. This situ­ation is hardly unique to ad­dress­ing the prob­lems in Obama­care that clearly ex­ist to all but the most par­tis­an of Demo­crats. It is a scen­ario that may well play out on oth­er vi­tal is­sues as well.

Lo­gic would sug­gest that the dir­ec­tion House Speak­er Paul Ry­an and Pres­id­ent Trump should go on many fu­ture le­gis­lat­ive en­deavors is to write off the Free­dom Caucus and ac­com­mod­ate those in the middle—mod­er­ate and/or swing-dis­trict Re­pub­lic­ans, and per­haps some Demo­crats too. Billy Moore, who served as chief of staff for two South­ern House Demo­crat­ic mem­bers after a stint with Sen. Lloyd Bent­sen, points out that there is a long his­tory of cent­rist co­ali­tions on le­gis­la­tion, from the North Amer­ic­an Fair Trade Agree­ment to more re­cent deals on ap­pro­pri­ations meas­ures, par­tic­u­larly con­fer­ence re­ports, after each side has com­pleted their ini­tial par­tis­an pos­tur­ing. These oc­ca­sions just don’t get a lot of me­dia at­ten­tion.

An­oth­er vet­er­an of the Wash­ing­ton wars, Bill Sweeney, points to times when Pres­id­ent Jimmy Carter couldn’t pla­cate lib­er­als on some is­sues, so he pivoted to the cen­ter—to mod­er­ate and South­ern Demo­crats, along with some of the lib­er­al-to-mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans who were more nu­mer­ous in those days. The chal­lenge then, ac­cord­ing to Sweeney, who served at the time as ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, was that it meant that they (Demo­crats) presen­ted them­selves in 1980 as the cent­rists but in real­ity didn’t stand for any­thing sat­is­fact­ory to the Left or the Right. In any case, Sweeney ar­gues that today, Con­gress be­haves in a far more par­lia­ment­ary fash­ion, mak­ing such moves more dif­fi­cult to ac­com­plish.

With an al­most total ab­sence of con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crats and thin­ning ranks of mod­er­ate Demo­crats on one hand, and an al­most mil­it­ant anti-Trump at­ti­tude among House Demo­crats on the oth­er, there is a strong dis­in­cent­ive for any Demo­crats to co­oper­ate with the pres­id­ent or do any­thing that might even in­dir­ectly be­ne­fit his agenda. Moore sug­gests that while mod­er­ate Demo­crats come from di­verse dis­tricts and many have a mul­ti­tude of pet is­sues, it might be sim­pler for Trump to try to cut a deal with mem­bers of the Con­gres­sion­al Black Caucus, who in my view tend to be more fo­cused in their pri­or­it­ies. Strik­ing a deal that ad­dresses their urb­an-dis­trict agenda might ac­tu­ally be easi­er than try­ing to ac­com­mod­ate oth­er Demo­crats who want too many dif­fer­ent things.

What has to make Free­dom Caucus mem­bers and oth­er con­ser­vat­ives in Con­gress nervous is a pas­sage in con­gres­sion­al chron­icler Robert Draper’s Sunday New York Times Magazine piece en­titled “Trump vs. Con­gress: Now What?” Draper writes:
When I spoke with Trump, I ven­tured that, based on avail­able evid­ence, it seemed as though con­ser­vat­ives prob­ably shouldn’t hold their breath for the next four years ex­pect­ing en­ti­tle­ment re­form. Trump’s reply was im­me­di­ate. “I think you’re right,” he said. In fact, Trump seemed much less an­im­ated by the sub­ject of budget cuts than the sub­ject of spend­ing in­creases. “We’re also go­ing to prime the pump,” he said. “You know what I mean by ‘prime the pump’? In or­der to get [the eco­nomy] go­ing, and go­ing big league, and hav­ing the jobs com­ing in and the taxes that will be cut very sub­stan­tially and the reg­u­la­tions that’ll be go­ing, we’re go­ing to have to prime the pump to some ex­tent. In oth­er words: Spend money to make a lot more money in the fu­ture. And that’ll hap­pen.” A clear­er elu­cid­a­tion of Keyne­sian lib­er­al­ism could not have been de­livered by Obama.
That’s enough to chill the spine of con­ser­vat­ives, put­ting them back in the po­s­i­tion of either op­pos­ing Trump on philo­soph­ic­al grounds and po­ten­tially ali­en­at­ing many Re­pub­lic­an voters who—polls show—over­whelm­ingly still ap­prove of the pres­id­ent’s per­form­ance, or com­prom­ising their lim­ited-gov­ern­ment val­ues.