It was the end of 2012. The country was courting fiscal and political disaster. The Obama-administration Democrats were at an impasse with the adamant GOP contingent on Capitol Hill. At the last minute, or so it seemed, then Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called Vice President Joe Biden: “Does anyone down there know how to make a deal?” Biden was precisely the one to approach. He had spent 36 years in the Senate, and countless days and nights negotiating compromise with McConnell and the Republicans. The answer to McConnell in 2012 was “not really,” so Biden and McConnell stepped in and figured out a bargain that prevented a debacle, avoided thanks to the two grown-ups and their long experience cobbling together agreements when all hope seemed lost.
Fast-forward through countless upheavals since then, and now we’ve devolved into a never-ending crisis, made even worse by a president who finds disaster exhilarating and whose enemies believe to be a disaster. This time even the crafty McConnell has so far not been able to pull a gambit out of the hat and solve the riddle that is health policy. Actually, this trauma is self-induced. For years, Republicans have made Obamacare their special target, particularly because it contained that word “Obama” and all that he represented. Exit Barack Obama, enter Donald Trump with a GOP-controlled Congress, and suddenly all these partisans had to deliver on their promise to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act.
Oops. It became very clear, very fast, that adequate medical treatment in the United States is more than just a slogan. It is, in the immortal words of the POTUS bard, “complicated.” To use a cliche, you pull one string and the whole thing unravels. Health care would be out for millions of Americans, among them those with pre-existing conditions. Also out would be the Medicaid subsidies and the other provisions that would allow the not-so-rich an alternative to care other than doing without because they couldn’t afford treatment. In would be tax cuts for the wealthy.
The Senate Republicans are divided into two camps. The so-called GOP moderates, those who are center-right, argue that the Obamacare alternatives are too harsh. Those who are off-center, on the extreme right, say they’re not harsh enough, even with tens of millions of Americans losing insurance coverage because they can’t afford it.
As for the White House, now the Republicans are led by Donald Trump, who doesn’t even bother understanding the complexities of health care policy. All he does is heckle from the sidelines, or capriciously change his spiel on a whim, usually via Twitter. He also doesn’t comprehend that his self-described skills as a negotiator would not be a “Part of the Deal,” because he’s really way out of his league. He can’t utilize the primitive tactics he’s always relied on; senators can’t be bullied, because they don’t fear him. The only thing that frightens them is not getting re-elected, and even when Trump threatens that, they are not intimidated. That’s why politicians have pollsters. When Sen. Shelley Moore Capito says, “I did not come to Washington to hurt people,” she knows full well that in her state of West Virginia, 1 in 8 residents relies on Medicaid. They don’t want it reduced. So she ends up sounding like a doctor reciting the Hippocratic oath about doing no harm. In politics, it probably would be called “Hypocritic,” because these guys constantly do a lot to hurt people.
If Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, would call this White House and ask again, “Does anyone down there know how to make a deal?” the answer now is a resounding “No.” I was probably wrong to say that McConnell would somehow get it done. Already Trump is doing a lot of blame-placing. His promises to replace Obamacare are so far just more empty bluster.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.