GOP REALITY CHECK-Recently, the Republicans got whacked by reality. The “Trumpcare” or “Ryancare” replacement of Obamacare failed when the G.O.P. couldn’t garner enough votes to pass a bill in the House of Representatives.
Despite threats from the White House, the so-called “Freedom” Caucus of far-right Republicans dug in their heels and refused to support the legislation. Speaker Paul Ryan’s offer to gut the essential health benefits requirements and remove protections for individuals with pre-existing conditions appealed to the group, but lost less conservative Republicans representing swing districts in states like New Jersey.
Republicans in Congress are trying to resurrect some kind of Obamacare replacement, but the odds are against them. Trump talks about working with Democrats to get enough votes to overcome the Freedom Caucus opposition, but Ryan says, “No way.”
Will the Republicans be able to get their act together on health care? A look at the history of Congress suggests the answer is no.
Throughout much of the nearly 23 decades of Congressional activity, the House of Representatives, in particular, has functioned not so much as a two-party system, but rather as a collection of three (and sometimes more) factions. Looking at the numbers of “Democrats” and “Republicans” who have been elected to successive Congresses doesn’t give the real picture of how things have worked.
Prior to the Civil War, it wasn’t just Democrats and Whigs. More likely, it was free state versus slave state. To complicate things, there were also Northerners, Southerners and Westerners. In this case, Western was considered anywhere beyond the Appalachians (especially Kentucky and Tennessee.)
Votes on issues moved more according to geographic and not party lines. In 1824, there were four major candidates for president. The House of Representatives eventually chose John Quincy Adams. As a result, Andrew Jackson (who beat Adams by 10 percent of the popular vote) created the modern political party to avoid a repeat.
Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, America split mostly east and west. The Democrats battled back and forth between their eastern “Wall Street” faction and western populist faction. Unhappy with the dominance of rich easterners in the Gilded Age, the agricultural west elected populist and progressive candidates to Congress. For a while, this handful of representatives influenced and, in some cases, controlled the outcome of legislation. Their strength in places like Minnesota still resonates.
The Great Depression and the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt scrambled Congressional factions as never before. A coalition of northern blue collar Democrats and southern “Dixiecrat” populists created the WPA, Social Security, fought World War II, and finally enacted Medicare. In essence, Congress consisted of three parties: northern Democrats, southern Democrats, and Republicans.
What that coalition of Democrats could not do was pass civil rights legislation. That happened only because Lyndon Johnson strong-armed the Republicans (as the party of Lincoln) to support bills like the Voting Rights Act. The resulting breakup of the New Deal coalition was exploited by Richard Nixon in 1968. His “Southern strategy” set the G.O.P. firmly on the road of “law and order” and anti-minority “dog whistle” politics.
Which brings us to where we are now. Congress again has three parties: Democrats, Republicans, and the Freedom Caucus. The three dozen or so ultra-right Republicans who make up the Freedom Caucus are the tail that wags the House of Representatives dog. As Ryan and Trump are discovering, party loyalty is a one-way street for a lot of legislators. “R” doesn’t always stand for “Republican.” Sometimes it means “renegade.”
(Doug Epperhart is a publisher, a long-time neighborhood council activist and former Board of Neighborhood Commissioners commissioner. He is a contributor to CityWatch and can be reached at: Epperhart@cox.net) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.