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Partisanship can campaign, but it can’t govern

The Republican health bill is dead for now. The political confusion remains.

Senate Holds Procedural Vote On GOP Health Care Bill Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

As Chris Hayes pointed out on Twitter, the Republican Party has run on repealing the Affordable Care Act for seven years, but last night they voted on a bill that they wrote at the last minute and released just hours before voting. Two GOP senators, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, held on to their opposition last night, joined at the last minute by John McCain. While other members of the Senate GOP caucus expressed doubts about the substance and the process, they voted along party lines anyway.

It might look like party discipline — evidence of a strong party — but it’s not. Party discipline has a clear, forward-looking logic: Legislators support the party line because they fear the loss of resources, or because the strength of the party, and its label, is worth something to them down the line.

No such logic was evident last night — or over the past few months as the House and Senate have worked on legislation to repeal the ACA. Instead, a shared message around vague ideas — dislike of Obama, “freedom,” and decreased government spending — seem to form the only thing resembling a core that the party can coordinate around. And most members are, despite the general unpopularity of the publicized bills and the disastrous CBO scores, unable, or unwilling, to vote no.

Political scientists have been writing about the politics of “disjunction” — per Stephen Skowronek’s theory of political time — since Trump won the nomination last May. The sexiest way to write about this is to compare Trump to Jimmy Carter. It's a headline that’s sure to provoke, but the whole idea behind political time is that it’s about coalitions and context. A political regime — a party and its ideas and ways of doing business — comes to an end when two things happen: Policy and politics can no longer be reconciled, and the party can no longer accommodate competing political pressures.

Here’s how these factors play out for the party that’s now in power. Lining up policy and politics has been a challenge since they began this process. Policies that would be more popular would involve more government oversight, but this is a no-go with the GOP’s donors and base. The political logic behind opposing Obamacare is at least partially about not wanting to pay for the care of others, particularly if those individuals are deemed undeserving. This, along with general opposition to “socialized medicine,” purported to drive up costs and wreck markets, can make for a really angry rally. But it doesn’t make for popular policy. It’s unlikely there’s a policy that will deliver what most people say they want and also satisfy those ingrained political principles.

Republican legislators also increasingly face a dilemma between whether to worry most about primary challenges or general election opponents (presumably Democrats). This has been one of the underlying questions throughout the debate over this legislation: Will the bill damage the GOP’s brand enough to elect Democrats? Or will individual legislators’ fear of being “primaried” by someone further to the right win out?

We found out a bit about the immediate answer this week, but considering the Trump twist on the usual disjunction story is important too. Donald Trump’s nomination and subsequent election are the culmination of weakening parties over several decades. The long 2016 election season upended the logic of much of what we thought was the structure of politics: the importance of fundraising, party endorsements, and conventional campaign operations.

None of this helps as legislators figure out their risks and their political interests. It is disappointing, but not surprising, that the bold dissent we saw from Collins, McCain, and Murkowski is not the default option for most legislators under such uncertainty.

Trump’s effect is not limited to the lessons of his campaign. His presidency also leaves the party bereft of reliable leadership. Republicans are without a central figure to assure members that collective decisions, like votes, will be managed and presented in ways that will, at the very least, minimize political damage. Members of Congress could step into this role. But parties have become increasingly presidency-centric.

The current disjunction inverts the dilemma of the Democrats in the 1850s, a party with robust “machinery” (to use Skowronek’s word) but with no animating political philosophy. Decades of compromises over slavery and the rights of states had rendered the party incapable of managing anything but a patronage network. The result was the Kansas-Nebraska Act, an unpopular compromise that worsened, rather than addressed, the central problem facing the nation. Northern Democrats had not only caved to the worst elements in their party but also revealed that they were not so different after all.

While the pre-Civil War Democrats had a strong party that could organize politics (although not one that could withstand the divisions of the time, eventually), the contemporary Republicans rely on a shared label and a shared set of things to oppose. Although the health care bill has died for now, the political problems that shaped this debate are still there. The country has developed other structures since to weigh down our civic and political life, and unlike in the 1850s, no central issue looms like slavery once did. Let’s hope these two factors are enough to keep the nation steady.