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Matt Schlapp: 5 lessons Trump, Ryan must learn from healthcare debate

Matt Schlapp

By Matt Schlapp

(The Hill) – I had the opportunity to appear on “Real Time with Bill Maher” last week, and he asked me right out of the gate if I could understand why so many Americans are on edge. I told him I did, and I certainly understand how liberals, collectivists and those who refuse to accept the results of the 2016 election seem to be in full 24/7 outrage mode.

What Maher and progressives forget — or fail to understand — is that that conservatives are on edge, too.

After a historic campaign that dramatically re-wrote the playbook of how to win, many secretly hoped that after the election and inauguration a certain rhythm would set in and the chaotic pace would be replaced with government gridlock. After all, the long-standing joke about Washington has always been that the city runs on lots of talk and little action.

But in the era of Donald Trump, all we can do is talk about all the action. And there has been a lot of action.

So many executive orders have been signed on a wide array of issues, it’s admittedly tough to keep up. Even the most seasoned news bureau chiefs and reporters seem overwhelmed by the West Wing’s hectic pace and breathless accounts of who is in or out, up or down, who is keeping up and who’s falling behind.

The wheels came to a grinding halt last week when a very complicated and controversial healthcare reform bill failed to make it to the House floor for a vote and produced an incredible and unintentional result: it awarded obstructionist Democrats points with their progressive base and exposed new rifts among Republican House members.

House leadership has always known the prospects of a Republican healthcare bill would be dicey, but they believed the best path was to simply and quickly unveil it and toss the hot potato to Senate Republicans. It was designed to get through the committees of jurisdiction and hit the floor with a simple up-or-down vote.

Republicans have had great political success at the ballot box recently, much of which is owed to voters’ dissatisfaction with the one-size-fits-all ObamaCare monstrosity. Make no mistake, Republicans are on the hook to not just perform cosmetic surgery on ObamaCare but to substantively overhaul an unsustainable system that punishes middle-class Americans with skyrocketing premiums and deductibles.

House leadership instead insisted on a bill — and wedded it to an unrealistic timetable that further limited input — that failed to incorporate replacement measures that would heal the rift between GOP moderates and conservatives, and failed to represent the free market values that are at the core of our economic philosophy.

It turns out the bill never had even close to enough votes to take a chance with a showdown on the floor. Despite the media coverage, which has been dominated by the concept that the Freedom Caucus brought down the bill, the truth is more textured. Yes, the Freedom Caucus tried valiantly to improve the base bill in an attempt to move it to the right, but, at the same time, a long list of moderate Republicans also had either told Speaker Paul Ryan or the media they could not support the bill.

In other words, the Republican conference seemed to have reverted back to days of Merlot and mayhem under Speaker John Boehner.

The lesson that I had hoped had been learned was that a Speaker had to go through a process where the will of the conference developed over time in an attempt to determine the most conservative legislative package that could garner enough support. The amendment process on the floor, together with dozens of conference listening sessions and strategy sessions, would eventually result in consensus. Shutting members out, baking bills behind closed doors and jumping to the end game were old tactics that wouldn’t work.

Some have said that President Trump and Vice President Pence were not effective enough advocates and that the president in particular failed to grasp enough legislative detail to convince members. My experience was exactly the opposite. Conservative members started off with a chip on their shoulder knowing their views were not being considered, and it was in fact the administration, including Health Secretary Tom Price, who convinced many to join the cause even when members had reservations.

Republicans cannot sugarcoat the negative consequences of our inability to corral ourselves to pass a repeal and conservative alternative to ObamaCare. The good news is that reporting this week seems to reflect this reality and a willingness to go at it again, hopefully with a different result the second time around. The stakes are high: a subsequent failure would be even more disastrous for Republicans. In an effort to avoid the mistakes of the last month and a half, here are five takeaways:

1.    There are many ways to repeal and replace ObamaCare, but failing to pass legislation is political malpractice. Voters will punish legislators for failing to keep their most repeated and clearest campaign promise.

2.    Market failure usually results in a government takeover. As ObamaCare continues to collapse under its own weight, there is just as likely a chance a future Congress could support a complete federal takeover of healthcare, as there would be an ability to introduce free market reforms. Some argue that time will eventually help end ObamaCare, but history teaches us that when programs falter, the more likely result is a permanent government takeover.

3.    Speaker Ryan is a wise policy expert, but major legislation, especially impacting entitlements, cannot succeed without laying the necessary groundwork nationally for a given policy solution. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich faced a similar problem as Medicare teetered on bankruptcy early in his Speakership. Gingrich chose to save and reform Medicare and spent months giving a slide presentation to anyone who would listen before he ever discussed a specific legislative solution.

4.    It is impossible in the age of constant media coverage to think that an entitlement can be narrowed without the backing of the major actors in that market. ObamaCare will never be replaced without the help and support of those companies and institutions laboring under its burdensome architecture. At the very least it would be nice to see what Harry and Louise think, or perhaps their children, who are probably living in their basement and working at Chipotle.

5.    As much as Congress wants to believe it can guide a reform bill by itself, the White House has to know enough to give major direction upfront. Twitter won’t win the vote, but a well-reasoned and articulated strategy that earns the support of key stakeholders and is pushed by the Trump/Pence/Price team may just get it done.

We may never know if tackling healthcare was the right first step for President Trump, but it eventually does need to be tackled to fix the problems voters demand be fixed. The only way complicated major issues like healthcare and taxes will get to the president’s desk is for the White House and Republicans in Congress to plot and plan together as a team, and listen to the voices of the people who sent them there.

Matt Schlapp is chairman of the American Conservative Union and CPAC. He was the White House political director to former President George W. Bush.

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