The Shared Illusions of Brexit and Obamacare Repeal

The Shared Illusions of Brexit and Obamacare Repeal
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“Have your cake and eat it.”  With these six aggressively monosyllabic words, the redoubtable Boris Johnson came clean, almost despite himself, about the contradictions of Brexit, and perhaps those of today’s right-of-center populism altogether.  In time, the phrase may be seen as the defining utterance of the post-truth era in trans-Atlantic politics.

The Washington corollary was minted by an aide to Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell regarding Obamacare – “repeal and replace.”  Less elegant, perhaps, but the inherent hubris and contradictions are much the same:  After throwing them off the system, we can then provide more than 20 million Americans health insurance, without patient costs, government expenditure or regulation, since our ideology forbids considering those policies.

Of course, in real life, and even eventually in politics, one must choose to either eat cake or have it.  Britain currently seems to have a slightly stale piece of cake, and a largely hungry populace.  Their American cousins, meanwhile, have a simple homespun saying: “You can’t replace something with nothing.” Yet, for the time being, that is precisely what congressional Republicans plan to do regarding Obamacare.

Newly inaugurated President Donald Trump, the acknowledged master of the boastful, populist tweet, remains serenely confident.  Regarding Obamacare, he claims to have a plan that will provide “insurance for everybody.”

“There was a philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it.  That’s not going to happen with us,” Trump said recently.  People covered under Obamacare, he said, “can expect to have great health care. It will be in a much simplified form. Much less expensive and much better.”  Ah, the magical realism that is post-truth Trumpism.

Theresa May, in contrast, has delivered a stern speech focused on facing up, finally, to the costs of Brexit, whatever they may end up being.  “Get on with it,” the prime minister reproved. “Let me be clear.  What I am proposing cannot mean remaining in the single [EU] market.”

That appears to be honest populism, or at least a confrontation of its costs, if not quite the conviction politics of the Thatcherite Iron Lady tradition. Still, Mrs. May plainly enumerated stark goals:  seek a free-trade deal with the EU; end European Court legal jurisdiction in Britain; require both houses of Parliament to approve any final deal -- if not the full means of achieving them.

Trump, to be fair, has not yet revealed the wondrous health care proposal that will solve all the inequities and problems of America’s byzantine health system at low cost.  His plan might seem less illusory, if no doubt more problematic in detail, once it sees the light of day. 

Moreover, Trump only inherited, or acceded to, the policy of repealing Obamacare in the first place.  It was after all the far-right Republican Freedom Caucus in the House of Representatives that over the last half decade has made Obamacare its bete noire, passing repeals dozens of times while certain President Obama would veto them. But so potent has its hatred of Obamacare become that last year all 16 Republican presidential primary hopefuls felt compelled to pledge, right hands raised, to repeal it, despite none of them having a viable plan to replace it.  The fact that Obamacare itself relies on several specific Republican, market-based ideas, now vilified, makes politically acceptable alternatives that much harder to devise.

In that sense, too, President Trump has become every bit the follower or captive of right-wing populism in America that Prime Minister May has become of the UKIP-inspired plebiscite.   May did not choose Brexit any more than Trump chose a repeal of Obamacare; they were both boxed into it by the dishonest rhetoric and often inherently unrealistic demands of right-wing populism, with ideology trumping, as it were, economic consequences.

Thus Brexit would have no economic costs but instead would actually save the British taxpayers hundreds of millions in yearly fees to Brussels, referendum voters were told.  In any event, pro-Brexiters assured the British public, the U.K. could gain free trade deals with countries around the world quickly and easily.  These conceits still haunt the path forward despite May’s admirable new candor. Witness the forcing out of Britain’s top Brexit negotiator, Ivan Rogers, precisely because he noted that negotiating new trade deals would take more than a few months.

Just so with Obamacare.  Those who point out that simply repealing the law without a viable replacement could create both human suffering and potential chaos in the insurance markets have no place in the modern -- that is, post-truth -- cosmos of the today’s Republican Party.  Former Speaker John Boehner was overthrown by the Freedom Caucus simply for having the temerity to negotiate with President Obama regarding a long-term fix for America’s budgetary dilemma related to health entitlement costs.  Never mind that Trump’s tax plan, seen as the centerpiece of the new Republican economic agenda, would raise U.S. debt by at least $5 trillion.

“Men occasionally stumble over the truth,” Boris Johnson’s hero, Winston Churchill, once observed, “but most pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.”  Yet something has happened to our politics.  And even as we dust ourselves off, the dead-ends and post-truths of right-wing populism cannot simply be wished away.

Paul Bledsoe is a senior fellow with the Progressive Policy Institute. He was a staff member in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate Finance Committee and served as an official in the Interior Department and at the White House under President Clinton.

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