President Trump, flanked by Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), left, and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), speaks at a luncheon with GOP leadership about health care on Wednesday in the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
As they scramble to resurrect the Senate GOP’s last chance to repeal the Affordable Care Act, conservative activists and media figures have settled on a message that could fall flat: Do it for President Trump. From Tuesday night through the announcement of yet another Republican meeting on their repeal bills, pundits and outside groups cast senators as “traitors” if they did not deliver a victory for the president.
“Republicans don’t really want this to be repealed and don’t really want Trump to win,” Rush Limbaugh told his listeners on Wednesday. “They never sell the plan.”
“These people are being true to their school, just not true to their party, and maybe not true to their country,” said “Fox and Friends” co-host Brian Kilmeade, before asking a guest why Congress had “let Trump down.”
It wasn’t clear what leverage conservatives had left. Key Republicans such as Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) were just re-elected to six-year terms. Calls and protests against the repeal bills vastly outnumber any actions to support them — on Wednesday, dozens more protesters courted arrest by sitting and singing outside Republicans’ Senate offices. Despite several rewrites of the basic bill, major insurers have continued to oppose it, and to oppose the “consumer freedom amendment” favored by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).
“All of our effort is on the three senators who voted for the 2015 repeal but are telling people they won’t vote for it now,” Club for Growth President David McIntosh said in an interview, describing the new website ObamacareRepealTraitors.com and its attacks on Murkowski, Portman and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). “They’re not up in cycle, but they’re in Trump states. I’ve been using the analogy of [former senator] Arlen Specter — are they going to be loyal to the Republican Party, or starting out on their own path?”
On the right, the final repeal push has been framed as a rematch of Trump’s 2016 victory — a chance for Republicans to go with their president, or reveal themselves as sellouts. Coverage of the health-care fight on Fox News, which had occasionally vanished from prime time, returned Tuesday night in the form of attacks on congressional failure.
“Coming close doesn’t count,” Fox’s Sean Hannity said in his opening monologue. “You people in Congress — you are pampered. You are overpaid. You are spoiled.” After attacking members of Congress for access to “free parking at work” and “access to the congressional gyms,” the Fox News host, whose annual salary has been estimated at $29 million, informed viewers that members of Congress are paid “$174,000 a year, three times higher than the median household income.”
The president has taken a light approach to the repeal effort, especially when compared with the lobbying that his most recent predecessors did for signature legislation. In 2009 and 2010, Barack Obama held multiple town halls and made scores of speeches about what needed to be part of the Affordable Care Act. In 2005, George W. Bush held dozens of events to promote Social Security privatization, many in the states of seemingly vulnerable Democratic senators.
The Trump White House has not come close to that level of involvement. He has not held events in West Virginia, a state he won by the biggest landslide of any Republican candidate in history, represented by a Democrat and Republican who oppose the latest iterations of repeal. He has issued, then retracted, threats to campaign against Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who are up for reelection next year. Since the Senate took up its repeal bill, he has done interviews only with Fox News and the Christian Broadcasting Network; on Twitter, he has veered wildly between letting “Obamacare die” and endorsing an unseen “fixed” bill.
Yet in conservative media, Trump’s Wednesday speech at the White House was portrayed as the president trying to save Republicans from themselves. “If there’s virtue in the replacement bill, sing its praise,” Limbaugh said. “Well, Trump did in his speech today. Nobody else is. They’re all acting embarrassed of it.”
In fact, defenders of the legislation had spent plenty of time talking it up — and, like Trump, describing the ACA as a collapsing house. But conservative media showed little interest in the details of the bill as it was debated; it emerged again as a topic when it became a straightforward story of the president against the shirkers.
That story got a workout on Wednesday, thanks to the news that Republicans, while still short on votes, would hold an evening meeting with Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. But the Trump luncheon speech veered between rote recitations of bullet points (“Will allow the use of pretax dollars to pay premiums. Will expand the HSAs. Will devote substantial resources to fight opioid and other substance abuse.”) and repetitive attacks on Democrats. In less than 30 seconds, Trump said that Democrats had “no ideas,” and that they wanted to pass single-payer health care. At another point, Trump promised that insurance reforms that could be part of “a popular bill” to come would save people “60 and 70 percent” on premiums.
The narrative that gripped conservative media did not always match up with what Republicans were seeing. Threats of primary challenges from the Senate Conservatives Fund and other groups referred, as the Club for Growth’s campaign referred, to elections three or five years away. FreedomWorks, which spent part of Wednesday handing awards to conservative members of Congress, said it was encouraging grass-roots phone calls to Capito and Portman; there was no evidence that this was drowning out the calls against the bill.
And at times, the conservative narrative fell short. On his radio show, Limbaugh said he had heard from a congressional staffer who wondered where the speechifying, hands-on Trump of the Wednesday lunch meeting had been.
“Do you remember the Iraq war in George W. Bush’s first term? Do you realize he spent a year and a half selling that war? He spent a year and a half,” said Limbaugh. “Do you remember the way the Democrats sold Obamacare? They were out there every day.”
Moments later, Limbaugh played a clip from the luncheon, and returned to praising the president, for the way he’d humiliated his critics.
“I saw some commentators today writing, ‘Trump’s an oaf! Trump didn’t even try to sell ’em,’” Limbaugh said. “It was a Never-Trumper column. Well, here’s Trump taking it to ’em.”
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