Amid Backlash, Conservatives Push GOP on Obamacare
President Trump has dismissed the constituent backlash against Republican lawmakers at recent town halls as "planned out by liberal activists." But with policy items GOP lawmakers have been pushing for years—namely, the repeal of Obamacare—hanging in the balance, conservative groups say they know better.
They have seen this script before—eight years ago, to be precise. The Obama administration and Democratic congressional leaders wrote off the Tea Party protests in the spring of the new president's first term as "astroturf" organizing, manufactured to look like a grassroots movement. Democratic lawmakers were caught off guard by raucous demonstrations at town halls in the summer of 2009, and dozens would be swept out of office the following year.
Now, with a restive liberal base taking a page from the same playbook—and even earlier than their conservative predecessors—some conservatives are fighting back. Groups including FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, and Heritage Action are organizing advertising, town halls, and rallies of their own. Republican organizations aligned with GOP leadership in Congress launched a combined $5 million in advertising in several states defending the repeal and replacement of Obamacare.
Action on the right will give Republican lawmakers some political assistance, but it will also add pressure to uphold their campaign promises, even in the face of widespread angst and increasing support for Obamacare. The implied message from conservative voters: don't get soft on us now.
"It's absolutely real, and it would be a mistake to try to say it's astroturf," Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, told RealClearPolitics about the protests at town halls this week. "It's just like how the Tea Party and explosion of activity we had was real."
But, Phillips said, it's important for Republican lawmakers to remember their campaign commitments to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
"Obamacare repeal has been litigated in four consecutive national elections, and the result has been the most devastating losses for the Democratic Party since the 1920s," Phillips said. "The greatest peril for Republicans in Congress will be if they break their word."
FreedomWorks, a conservative group active in the early days of the Tea Party, is planning a March 15 rally in Washington, featuring GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, designed to hold lawmakers accountable, along with visits to congressional district offices.
"Even though conservatives won, and won big, now is not the time to take a break and bask in success," wrote FreedomWorks CEO Adam Brandon in an op-ed published Wednesday. "The Left isn't going to give up without a struggle: Town hall protests and social media mobilization are just the beginning of the backlash."
Indeed, the backlash is well organized and strongly felt -- by House members in Virginia and Utah and senators in Iowa and Arkansas, for example. And it is making conservatives eager for lawmakers to make moves on Obamacare.
"The left’s enthusiasm is real, and the only way to overcome that is by delivering real policy victories on important issues ... that actually make life better for those folks that felt left behind by Washington," said Dan Holler of Heritage Action.
The big questions from this week's recess are what GOP lawmakers are taking away from their meetings with constituents. Conservative operatives are concerned congressional Republicans may shy away from gutting the law. Some lawmakers have started to use words like "repair."
But part of the problem for lawmakers on recess in their districts this week is that they don't have a clear alternative policy to share with their constituents anxious about changes or threats to their health care security. Republicans have not coalesced around a replacement plan, though the confirmation of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, the architect of a well-received alternative in the House, gives lawmakers and outside groups hope the process will move efficiently.
Meanwhile, GOP leaders aren’t backing away from their pledge. "Our job is to repair the American health care system and rescue it from the collapse that it's in," House Speaker Paul Ryan said at a recent press conference. "And the best way to repair our health care system is to repeal and replace Obamacare. It's not an either-or."
President Trump said Wednesday he would release details of his own proposal in March. But Trump has caused some messaging challenges for his party. While he campaigned on repealing the "disaster" of Obamacare, he has also pledged coverage "for everyone."
The president has acknowledged that the logistics of repealing and replacing the law with new policy are slow and tedious, and he has adjusted the time frame before. Meanwhile, conservative groups are worried that the longer Republicans wait to repeal the law, the more momentum they lose. For conservatives, there was no ambiguity in Republican lawmakers' campaign promises. "There is no Republican on the Hill who campaigned on 'repair,'" said Phillips. "It's disappointing that some Republicans are hyper ventilating. Of course they're going to have opposition [from the left]."
Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint, a former South Carolina senator who was an early leader of the Tea Party movement, dismisses direct parallels between then and now. But he also acknowledges that the resistance protests have been having an effect on the process.
"It's going to be difficult for congressmen to go out and defend their positions, because those people who are coming [to town halls] are coming to disrupt," DeMint said on MSNBC. "It's an organized effort to make it hard for Trump and Congress to be successful ... I'm concerned all of this pushback has delayed the repeal of Obamacare and certainly other agenda items that need to be taken up."
Two groups have come to leadership's defense, promoting GOP efforts to both repeal the law and also replace it. The American Action Network announced a $2 million advertising campaign in 21 districts held by Republicans. "AAN will continue its aggressive efforts to remind lawmakers about the real failures of Obamacare and urge them to continue fighting for patient-centered healthcare reform," said Executive Director Corry Bliss in a statement.
One Nation, led by Steven Law, former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, announced a $3 million ad buy in 11 states, targeting senators. “Last fall Americans sent Washington a clear message: clean up the Obamacare mess,” said Law. “We’re going to make sure Washington follows through."
The fact that Republican districts are now safer for incumbents, and that President Trump is popular in many of those districts, makes it more difficult for Democrats to sweep House seats in 2018 than it was for Republicans to gain seats in the 2010 midterms. Republicans may be more concerned about a primary challenge than Democratic opposition.
Democrats need to flip 24 seats to regain control of the House. Among the party's targets in the 2018 midterm are 23 GOP districts that Clinton won.
Conservatives say that part of the Tea Party’s victory involved winning congressional and local seats. They point to Sen. Scott Brown's surprise win in Massachusetts in 2010 as an example. "That victory in Massachusetts proved that conservatives could win anywhere, and that electoral message was carried on to purple states like Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin, where each of those Senate candidates who won in November of 2010 won again in 2016," wrote Taylor Budowich, executive director of the Tea Party Express.
Until the liberal base can claim victory, the effect of the town hall pushback remains to be seen, conservatives argue.
Still, conservatives have been cautioning against taking the backlash for granted.
"What was true in 2009 is true today: In the normal course of things, it’s not easy even for a well-funded and organized group to get people to spend an evening at a school auditorium hooting at their congressman," wrote Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review. "If these demonstrations are happening in districts around the country, attention must be paid."