The political forces that destroyed TrumpCare

This time, it seems like TrumpCare may really be dead.

On Monday night, Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) officially jumped ship from the Senate health-care bill. That brought the official “no” vote count to four, which is two more than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) could afford to lose. Then, on Tuesday, McConnell’s “plan C” to simply repeal ObamaCare also met a swift defeat when three Republican moderates announced they couldn’t support it.

Watching all this go down, I keep coming back to one of MSNBC host Christopher Hayes’ favorite phrases: “political gravity.”

Democracy is supposed to be a feedback loop between voters and politicians: The politicians try to pass bills, those bills actually affect voters’ lives, voters respond with activism and votes, and politicians respond by changing course. But a lot of political reporting implicitly assumes that the consequences of bills don’t affect their fates. All that matters is legislative and political strategies: the most inventive partisan games, the cleverest salesmanship, the most creative deal-making. It can take real work to pause and remind yourself that, as Hayes puts it, “the basic political gravity of whether you make people’s lives better or worse matters.”

TrumpCare has been one of the most dramatic tests of Hayes’ thesis in years.

Washington insiders love to say that it’s virtually impossible to cut or eliminate big entitlements like Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid once they’ve been established. If you give people generous cash aid or affordable health care, you’re going to make their lives meaningfully better. Spread those benefits over a large enough portion of the population, and no politician will touch them. They may make a lot of noise about cutting them. They may even get overly-enthusiastic and try to cut them, like the GOP did with Social Security privatization back in 2005. But they’ll inevitably chicken out when they see how their constituents would be affected.

Ever since its creation, it’s been unclear if ObamaCare’s subsidies were enough to cross this threshold into political invincibility. But in its zeal, the Republican Party decided to go beyond just repealing the health-care law and tried to massively cut pre-ObamaCare funding for Medicaid as well. So it looks like Hayes’ political gravity theory checks out.

But there’s a wrinkle.

If the human destruction wreaked by cutting Medicaid and ObamaCare’s subsidies is ultimately what killed TrumpCare, you’d expect Republican moderates to be the ones who stuck the knife in. But three of the four hard “no’s” — Lee, Moran, and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — sit on the Republicans’ extreme right. They scuttled the bill because it didn’t cut and destroy enough.

Does this overturn the political gravity thesis? I don’t necessarily think so. The key is understanding what the Republican base wants.

The GOP is actually fairly fractured. Its white working-class voters sign up for the party’s culture wars, but dislike its economic platform in practice. Meanwhile, its rich supporters salivate over its economic platform — and donate accordingly — but find some of its cultural excesses off-putting. The real Republican base — the voters on board with both the party’s economic and cultural agendas — consists primarily of well-off, socially right-wing older white people. But that’s a group that’s becoming a smaller and smaller portion of the electorate. Meanwhile, Americans who lean left on economics have always been a majority, and Americans who lean left on culture are expanding their share of the population. So the Democrats’ natural base is expanding, while the GOP’s natural base is shrinking. The Republican base knows this and so they’re becoming increasingly angry and more extreme.

The political gravity that Hayes speaks so eloquently about made sure the GOP couldn’t scrap ObamaCare and replace it with nothing. Even TrumpCare, cruel as it may be, is just a badly-designed adjustment to ObamaCare. But this other big political force — the increasingly radical impulses of the GOP — also played an important role in the end of TrumpCare. The Republican base knew TrumpCare was just ObamaCare-lite, and they weren’t willing to settle for it.

That second force was pushing up as political gravity was pulling down. And TrumpCare got crushed in between.