Jason Lewis, a Republican congressman from Minnesota who just lost his re-election bid, has come up with a counterintuitive take on the Democratic takeover of the House: It’s the fault of John McCain, the Republican senator from Arizona who died in August.
McCain’s July 2017 vote against Republican legislation to repeal and replace part of Obamacare, Lewis argues, deprived Republicans of the ability to prove the critics of that legislation wrong.
Lewis is being panned for blaming his and others’ defeats on a dead man, especially a war hero, and even more especially for doing it in an op-ed that appeared on Veterans Day. Leaving questions of taste aside, there are glaring flaws in Lewis’s argument. But let’s give Lewis his due before going into them. It is not impossible, as paradoxical as it may sound, that passing highly unpopular legislation might have helped Republicans.
Lewis has a reasonable case on that point, although he overstates it. Passage would not have made Republican legislation popular, but could well have undercut the ubiquitous predictions of its catastrophic effects.
Various iterations of the legislation were said to be likely to cause 22 million or 23 million people to lose their health insurance. That wouldn’t have happened: The claim was based on a distortion of a Congressional Budget Office projection. The CBO later tacitly admitted that the projection was too high, and some of the projected losses were supposed to take longer to materialize than most people realized.
Passage of legislation might also have made it clearer that states were not going to start a stampede to deprive people with pre-existing conditions of protections — and that Republican legislation required all states to maintain a significant degree of protection.
On the other hand, Lewis discounts the possibility that Republicans would have paid a price at the ballot box because their legislation would have allowed insurers to raise premiums for near-retirees and cut them for younger people. That trade-off may have made sense as a policy, but older people would have been unhappy and more likely to vote on the issue.
While Lewis is uncharitable in attributing McCain’s vote to his personal hostility toward Trump, it is also true that McCain’s stated grounds for that vote were hard to reconcile with other aspects of his record. He said he wanted a more regular legislative process in which Obamacare legislation would move through congressional committees and pass with bipartisan support.
Since there was no way that Democrats were going to agree to any conservative or center-right Obamacare replacement, that amounted to saying that he was in practical terms willing to see Obamacare continue. It was very far from his previous campaign pledge to lead the fight against the health care law.