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How Paul Ryan gained moderate votes for AHCA by making it more extreme

Guys, it’s time for some game theory.

Like a bird or a plane, House Republican legislation needs the cooperation of two different wings to take flight.

In the House GOP’s case, the two most significant wings are the Freedom Caucus — a group of leadership-hating, ultraconservative hardliners — and a loosely organized and largely non-ideological group of vulnerable members who represent districts where Donald Trump is unpopular.

The precise dynamics will change from issue to issue. But the basic conflict between these wings is systematic.

The Freedom Caucus wants to push bills as far to the right as possible, while the vulnerables have an incentive to try to minimize controversy.

The Freedom Caucus won a huge victory

As the Affordable Care Act process played out, the Freedom Caucus not only won this struggle but did so in a way that creates a strong precedent for how they can win future legislative fights.

To see why, consider a brief timeline:

  • The original AHCA would have replaced Affordable Care Act plans with much skimpier subsidies but left large parts of the ACA’s regulatory infrastructure in place. Officially, that was a matter of procedure, as regulatory changes would be harder to pass through the Senate under the rules Republicans were using to pass the bill with as simple majority. But this was partially an excuse — unofficially, GOP leaders were worried that outright gutting Obamacare’s protections for people with preexisting conditions would be too unpopular to sustain.
  • The AHCA attracted loud opposition from the Freedom Caucus, but also quiet opposition from many of the vulnerables, who felt it simply jeopardized care for too many people. The Congressional Budget Office estimated as many as 24 million people would lose insurance under the first version of the AHCA, and the bill died before a floor vote on March 24.
  • The Freedom Caucus and the White House then cooked up an alternative idea that would sweep aside the procedural objection and largely roll back the regulatory aspects of the Affordable Care Act. That got Freedom Caucus members on board, but it was still a no-go with the vulnerables, because, while the Congressional Budget Office didn’t score it, it was likely to reduce coverage even further.
  • Then in further negotiations, the Freedom Caucus somewhat walked back its demands. The revised bill merely provided states with the option of rolling back the regulatory protections, while also throwing in $8 billion in payments to states who opted to do so that they could use to try to protect a handful of the patients who’d be disadvantaged.
  • Vulnerables proclaimed this good enough for them and hopped on the bandwagon.

Two things about this are striking. One is that vulnerable members decided to vote for a bill that is more extreme than the one they initially rejected. The House GOP didn’t have to move the original bill toward the center in order to win their votes — they moved it a foot to the right, and then an inch back to the center, and that was good enough.

The other is that there is a real logic to their decision.

The basic difference is that as long as the Freedom Caucus was loudly objecting from the right, the vulnerables could quietly dissent from the left without becoming the focus of attention. Once the Freedom Caucus was on board, all attention focused on the vulnerables. And few vulnerables were willing to go on record as the reason Obamacare repeal failed. With the spotlight on, they worried about primary challenges from the right and Trump tweets publicly castigating them. So while they fought for, and won, some concessions, they ultimately ended up settling for a bill that was worse, by their standards, than the bill they had initially opposed.

Shifting the bill to the right thus ended up helping leadership win votes from both wings — from Freedom Caucus members whose demands were met, and from vulnerable Republicans who, without the protection of an ideologically heterodox opposition, feared standing alone against the bill.

Moderate Republicans are institutionally feeble

That’s in part tactical blundering, but in part it represents a real institutional weakness among moderate Republicans. Moderate Democrats have a separate — and oftentimes larger — donor base than progressive ones, drawn from the ranks of lobbyists and others in the business community. Moderate Republicans fish in the same big-money ponds as their more conservative colleagues, but the conservatives can also fall back on grassroots donors whom the moderates don’t have.

The moderates’ distinct value-add is they will reliably deliver “yes” votes for bipartisan deals the GOP leadership makes that the base doesn’t like. That earns them brownie points from leaders and moderation points from less conservative voters. But they don’t have a separate institutional leg to stand on in order to fight against the party leadership.

The Freedom Caucus, by contrast, has a distinct base of donors among grassroots activists and eccentric far-right billionaires. Getting into fights with party leaders is integral to their brand, and it enmeshes them in a larger network of conservative grievance politics. The result is that the Freedom Caucus is genuinely in a position to make or break legislation. Unless the GOP leadership is in a position to count on substantial Democratic support for a bill, the only way to get things done is to get the far right on board and work from there.

Freedom Caucus backing doesn’t only add votes on the right, it ultimately adds votes from the left — isolating moderates to a point where they inevitably fold.

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