I was up late last night, like many of you, watching the drama unfold in the Senate chamber. Here’s our Tierney Sneed’s look at how it looked actually inside the chamber as it all happened. Let me share a few thoughts on what now certainly seems like a momentous and perhaps concluding moment.
First, as people speculated and somewhat comically interpreted body language last night or rather early this morning, I had a very hard time believing the result would be what it turned out to be. A big part of that was my read of John McCain. I’ve frequently criticized McCain for many years, especially as he moved more decisively into being a reliable GOP vote starting in the build up to his 2008 presidential run. In most cases, I think those criticisms were right and merited. He earned them. But he surprised me last night. And it will be very hard for me to ever forget that moment, especially in light of what we have heard about Sen. McCain in recent days.
What is still unclear to me is why he did what he did. I don’t imply any cynical motive. But did he at the final moment simply refuse to support a bill that would have such devastating consequences for so many? Or was it more a matter of procedure and process, as he seemed to suggest? I don’t know and for the moment at least it doesn’t matter terribly. But his choice was decisive and it feels like a defining moment. It was almost cinematic drama.
With this said, though, Lisa Murkowski’s vote was just as important. And she didn’t budge in the face of endless lobbying from her colleagues and tactless and perhaps counterproductive threats from the White House defined by patterns of abuse and bad-acting. Both mathematically and substantively, McCain’s headline moment was only possible because Murkowski and Collins were there, consistently over time and under withering pressure to fold. They persisted.
Murkowski deserves a huge, huge amount of credit for her vote. But to my mind, Collins is really the stand out here. Collins made clear pretty much from the beginning of this latest process that her vote was not available at all. Not for motions to proceed, not for votes on the various different flavors of Trumpcare. Her vote, though only one vote, made McConnell’s margin dramatically tighter and ultimately too tight. She was matched with Paul and Heller at one point and finally with Murkowski and McCain. But she was there throughout.
As we discussed at various points throughout this long process, now probably but not certainly concluded, legislative politics all comes down to narrowing margins so political pressure can be concentrated on weak points, marginal votes. Collins was the lever making pressure on others possible. It is important to note that once a legislator makes their intentions clear like that they suddenly matter much less in terms of press attention, pay offs, special deals and the like. Paradoxically, the most critical person gets the least glory and attention. Her consistent opposition was a big, big deal.
Nor should we forget the fact that 48 Democrats were consistently ‘nos’ to everything throughout. This seems obvious now, given how everything turned out. It was clearly easier to accomplish in a highly polarized climate and with a smaller caucus than it was in 2009. But in a caucus that stretches from Bernie Sanders to Joe Manchin don’t underestimate the difficulty. Chuck Schumer kept his caucus 100% locked down throughout. That is a big, big deal and easy to underestimate.
With all this, though, all of the politicians were like small boats on a vast ocean. They made critical choices – some to their honor, Murkowski, others to their infamy, Heller; they executed strategies. But small boats on a vast ocean, no matter how expert their navigation, are ultimately subject to and at the mercy of waves and winds and tides. And here, to extend our metaphor, the ocean and the tides were activists and non-activists making phone calls, showing up at townhalls, emailing, in some cases reaching beyond partisan affiliation to say in various ways that this was not right. The victory here is really millions, tens of millions of people who made noise on a sustained basis over months. Noise is comparatively easy; sustained noise over months is seldom possible. It is an immense and bracing victory for what was at the end of the day very much grass roots, organic activism. Republicans were finally unable to overcome the common sense logic that the true measure of reform in the public interest was how a piece of legislation helped or harmed how many people.
For all the whining, special pleading, CBO-bashing and just straight up lying, it was just crystal clear that every version of Trumpcare would harm millions and in most cases tens of millions of people in order to provide some greater flexibility for a dramatically lower number of people and a big tax cut for a tiny percentage of the population. The refusal to accept the undeniable numbers was simply an apt measure of the inability to make a political or moral argument for that tradeoff on the merits.
Where this goes from here I really don’t know. I don’t consider Obamacare repeal over. I’m not saying it will come back. I just don’t consider it definitively over. High vigilance is warranted. Indeed, now moving forward with a positive and compelling argument to cover more people is critical. Republicans also want to attack Medicaid in any way they can. The ego wound suffered last night by President Trump will make him hunger for people to hurt and things to destroy. His clearest domestic outlet for vengeance is sabotaging the Obamacare marketplaces. All of this is still to come. With all this, however, if you called, if you showed up at a town hall, if you chose to act, tens of millions of your fellow Americans have you to thank for what happened last night.
You may even have saved yourself.