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GOP 's epic fail on Obamacare repeal will create a big problem in 2018

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (L) R-WI with Senate Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (L) R-WI with Senate Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

New York — I spent part of Sunday evening enjoying Battle of the Sexes. This first-rate film very amusingly tells the true story of self-styled male-chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs's efforts to defeat Billie Jean King in a landmark singles-tennis matchup in 1973. This globally televised showdown, Riggs hoped, would deliver feminism an overhead smash and dispatch all of womanhood "back to the kitchens and bedrooms," once and for all.

This surprisingly engrossing picture offers admirable ensemble acting, suspenseful tennis action, and a lovingly crafted recreation of early 1970s design, fashion, and music (including George Harrison's "What is Life?" and Elton John's — wait for it — "Rocket Man.") King's extramarital discovery of her same-sex desires is a major plot point, sensitively handled. Steve Carrell's and Emma Stone's performances in the lead roles should be remembered during awards season. They both disappear into the real-life personalities they portray, particularly Stone.

But the point here is that I saw a movie at all on Sunday night.

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I spent late Sunday afternoon trying to write an open letter to Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.) urging him, as a fellow libertarian, to change his mind and support the Graham-Cassidy-Heller-Johnson legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare. (This was two days before this measure became the GOP Senate's latest epic fail.) I read a number of Senator Paul's speeches on healthcare and identified several key reforms that he advocates. As luck would have it, GCHJ was poised to enshrine many of them in law. Among them:

  • Repeal of the individual and employer mandates
  • An end to Medicaid expansion in 2020
  • Termination of cost-sharing subsidies
  • Legalization of association health plans
  • A green light for catastrophic coverage
  • New life for health savings accounts
  • Sudden death for the medical-device tax
  • A halt to federal funds for Planned Parenthood, not for good, but for one year

Perhaps reminding Paul of these facts would have helped move him into the Yes column and allowed GCHJ to squeak through the Senate's reconciliation window, which slams shut on Saturday night. With 50 votes needed before Vice President Mike Pence could cast a tie-breaking vote and pass the bill, Republicans have zero wiggle room. Bringing Paul in from the cold could have secured victory.

Then I heard from my friend Sally Pipes, president of the free-market Pacific Research Institute. She has authored scores of articles on Obamacare's failures and the patient-centered policies that would begin to repair its hurricane-like damage. "Cruz is now a NO!" Pipes emailed me at about twilight.

My heart sank. My stomach churned. My blood boiled.

I e-mailed Pipes:

"I have started working on a piece trying to get Rand Paul to vote yes.

"And then Cruz does this, even before Susan Collins or Lisa Murkowski get a chance to be the bad guys here.

"At this stage I wonder:

"Why the hell should I spend my evening writing a pointless op-ed piece? Why not go to dinner and see a movie? "If these [expletives deleted] will not do their jobs, why the hell should I do mine?

"That's it. I'm off to a movie."

So, I saw Battle of the Sexes, read the paper and a book at an East Village coffee spot, and then enjoyed some lovely Japanese food. I then got a good night's sleep.

"Watching Republicans stagger from one self-inflicted defeat to another will unleash a pandemic of learned helplessness on the Right. If repeatedly campaigning hard for Republican candidates achieves so little, why knock ourselves out a year from now?"

Since then, I have not lifted a finger to help the dysfunctional GOP Senate, which seems to be on a suicide mission. Republicans reputedly control majorities in both houses of Congress. A GOP chief executive itches to deploy his signature pen. Regardless, senators from President Trump's own party concoct excuses to avoid forwarding bills to his desk. To its limited credit, the Senate did meet on Friday, September 15 and Monday and Tuesday, September 18 and 19, before adjourning for Rosh Hashanah. The U.S. House ran home on Thursday afternoon, September 14, and then was on hiatus the next day and all of last week off. And this after fleeing town, along with the Senate, for all of August.

For shame.

The free-market, conservative movement is blessed with hardworking, dedicated, and idealistic (in the best sense) donors, scholars, opinion journalists, broadcasters, and activists. Alas, we are doomed by flaccid, nearly non-existent congressional leadership, "so-called Republicans" (in President Trump's words) who crave big government, and libertarian utopians who — on too many issues — will reject significant policy improvements while demanding nothing less than a live-action version of Atlas Shrugged. They spurned GCHJ's federalist block grants to all 50 states, deregulation, and wider consumer choices. Simultaneously, as if for Godot, they awaited the arrival of HayekCare. These so-called decision-makers luxuriate in their purism while millions of Americans writhe in pain on the road to serfdom.

The unacceptably ineffective Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) tabled GCHJ while graciously sparing naysayers the inconvenience of stepping onto the Senate floor and voting to keep Obamacare alive. What a genteel way to treat people who carpet-bombed his top legislative priority. Instead, he should have yanked their committee assignments. This perfectly illustrates McConnell's problem: He is neither loved nor feared. He is barely respected. Mainly, he is disregarded — like nitrogen, argon, and other invisible, inert gases.

As if to underscore McConnell's growing irrelevance, former Alabama Supreme Court justice Roy Moore Tuesday night defeated GOP senator Luther Strange in a runoff to fill the seat to which Strange was appointed. Strange lost despite McConnell's hearty endorsement and some $10 million in campaign cash from the McConnell-tied Senate Leadership Fund.

So, what did senators Paul and Cruz accomplish by refusing to secure a partial victory today and begin the push for even better reforms tomorrow? The end of reconciliation means that any new repeal-and-replacement bill will need 60 votes, rather than 51. The need to recruit at least eight Democrats to push a new healthcare bill over the filibuster threshold will move it, ipso facto, to the left of GCHJ. Perhaps Rand Paul and Ted Cruz can explain how this would advance capitalism and freedom.

For her part, Senator Susan Collins (R., Maine) opposed GCHJ presumably because it would have thrown her constituents into the snow.

"Collins' state would have received a 43 percent increase in federal healthcare funding" from GCHJ, health-policy expert Betsy McCaughey of the London Center for Policy Research tells me. "She was cowed by the rhetoric and demagoguery."

"Tragic we have legislators who are so shortsighted!" lamented another well-respected advocate for patient-centered medicine. "Apparently a small group of people cheered Senator Collins when she got off the plane after her last No vote. Clearly, she saw a few cheers as more important than saving what is left of the private health sector."

Meanwhile, John McCain (R., Ariz.) waved the flag of procedural absolutism. While insisting on "regular order," he opposed GCHJ for its lack of bipartisan support — something that any Democrat was welcome to offer. Thus, McCain left intact a calamitous law that lacked bipartisan support and jacked up the average Arizonan's premiums last year by 116 percent.

I am disgusted.

But never mind me.

If a committed ideologue like myself — who has spent 38 years in the conservative movement — throws his hands in the air and watches a Hollywood movie rather than fight in the Rightist trenches, how will the GOP's defeatism and self-sabotage affect the party's volunteers and voters? Come 2018, the Republican Party will need these patriots to knock on doors, man phone banks, attend get-out-the-vote rallies, and of course, cast ballots. Watching Republicans stagger from one self-inflicted defeat to another will unleash a pandemic of learned helplessness on the Right. If repeatedly campaigning hard for Republican candidates achieves so little, why knock ourselves out a year from now?

As David Ducker observed in Friday's Washington Examiner: "GOP powerbrokers worry that inability to deliver while in full control of government will enrage the grassroots and depress turnout of a broader electorate that could wonder what's the point of reelecting a Republican House and Senate."

It would be bad enough to watch Republicans on Capitol Hill fight valiantly and lose to Democrats. But for these lazy, vacation-addicted dilettantes to surrender to themselves is beyond revolting.

Commentary by Deroy Murdock, a a National Review Online contributing editor.

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©2017 National Review. Used with permission.