Political Twitter fell all over itself mocking this article blaming Al Franken for the rise of Donald Trump. But I don't think the mockery is quite merited. Stripped of its provocative framing, the underlying argument is fairly standard — and, in a way, much more revealing.
The piece, by Josh Kraushaar, doesn't actually blame Franken for the rise of Trump. It blames Obamacare. Franken only figures in because Obamacare couldn't have passed without 60 Democrats in the Senate and Franken was the last (and most famous) Democrat elected to the Senate before its passage. The article could also have been titled "How Barbara Mikulski paved the way for Donald Trump."
The next chain in the argument is that the passage of Obamacare drove the Republican Party into a frenzied, endless backlash:
Imagine, for a moment, the state of the 2010 midterms without Obamacare in the equation. Republicans would have run against the stagnant state of the economy with some success. But without the galvanizing opposition to Obama’s health care law—Republicans netted a whopping 63 House seats that year—Democrats would likely have narrowly kept control of Congress, and continued to press forward with Obama’s agenda. There would be tea-party-aligned Republicans elected, but absent the wave, not enough to form the concerted opposition that emerged.
Kraushaar is echoing the standard Republican line here. He quotes John Boehner saying, of Obamacare, that "in a democracy, you can only ignore the will of the people for so long and get away with it."
In this telling, Obamacare was hubris that led to disaster. "Obama, eager to be seen as a historically-consequential president, [wanted] to spend all of his political capital early on the Democratic dream of expanding public access to health care — political backlash be damned," Kraushaar writes.
This is more interesting and thoughtful than the Franken-framing, and it speaks, I think, to something important in Trump's rise.
How Republicans drove themselves crazy over Obamacare
There are two ways to look at Obamacare. One is that it was more or less American politics working as it's supposed to.
Democrats won two wave elections in a row and amassed a tremendous amount of political power. That done, they turned to their top priority: health reform. They recognized that their majority, though large, wasn't particularly liberal, and in a bid to win over both moderate Democrats and Republicans, they abandoned their single-payer dreams and their public option hopes and crafted legislation based on Mitt Romney's successful, bipartisan Massachusetts reforms.
The final bill passed the House, passed the Senate, and was signed into law by the president. The vote fell on party lines, but then, most major votes these days fall on party lines. Obamacare is now covering about 20 million people at a cost lower than anyone anticipated. This is the political system doing its job in a polarized age.
But there's another popular narrative of Obamacare — that it was a hijacking of American politics in order to pass radical, unconstitutional legislation that forever transformed the country.
In this telling, Democrats won a hefty majority on a message of unity and moderation and then rammed socialized health care down the country's throat. They bought off interest groups, exploited parliamentary loopholes, and ignored the clear will of the people. The GOP's lockstep opposition was driven by the danger posed by the legislation and the corruption of the process. The Tea Party — which had its roots, remember, in the administration's housing policies, not in Obamacare — was a necessary reaction to the Democrats' unforgivable decision to use a transient majority to permanently reshape America.
Longtime readers won't be surprised to know I think the first narrative is basically true and the second narrative is rather overwrought. But the second narrative is widely believed on the right. It's what the Republican Party has been telling its voters for years. It's what Kraushaar is gesturing towards in his column. And I think there is reason to believe it's partly what's driving Trump.
But it didn't have to be that way.
Obamacare on Earth-1610
The Republican Party could have reacted to Obamacare the way it, say, reacted to Medicare — and Medicare actually was a single-payer health care plan. But in that case, Republicans negotiated over the legislation, and 70 House Republicans and 13 Senate Republicans voted for the final bill.
Obamacare was, by any measure, a much more modest, moderate piece of legislation than Medicare. And a number of Republicans — notably Chuck Grassley, Olympia Snowe, and Mike Enzi, all of whom were part of the Gang of Six negotiations — were deeply involved in crafting the law, and could have had virtually anything they wanted if they had been willing to vote for it.
Moreover, it's not as if Republicans are always and everywhere opposed to government-driven health reforms. Not only was Obamacare based off of Romneycare, but Donald Trump, the current frontrunner for the Republican nomination for president, has said he's going "to take care of everybody" who doesn't have health insurance, and that "the government's going to pay for it."
That promise doesn't match the policy Trump eventually released, but it goes quite a bit further than even Obamacare does, and it makes it hard to credit the idea that base Republicans are so implacably opposed to universal health care that the only possible response to Obamacare on the right was mass panic.
That isn't to say Obamacare would ever have been a bill conservatives loved. Its basic structure is that it raises taxes on the rich and cuts benefits for the elderly in order to subsidize health insurance for the poor and the sick. But Republicans could have hated Obamacare in the way the Democrats hated the Bush tax cuts — it could've been legislation they opposed rather than legislation they feared.
But that wasn't the strategy. As Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Senate Republicans, told the Atlantic, "We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals, because we thought — correctly, I think — that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan. When you hang the ‘bipartisan’ tag on something, the perception is that differences have been worked out, and there’s a broad agreement that that’s the way forward."
McConnell is savvier about American politics than just about any human being alive, and he has this exactly right. Bipartisanship isn't a function of the ideas in a policy proposal; it's a function of whether the minority party signs on to a policy proposal.
Republicans executed a coordinated and successful strategy to make sure the country saw Obama as a hardcore partisan and Obamacare as an unconstitutional takeover of the American health care system (despite the fact that the hypothetically unconstitutional part, the individual mandate, was actually a Republican idea that many Senate Republicans were supporting at the same time they were opposing Obamacare). They did everything in their power to whip their base into a frenzy over the law. And they succeeded.
To say this more simply, grassroots conservatives weren't fated to panic over Obamacare. They were told to panic over Obamacare. And their leaders told them that for good reason.
Republicans persuaded their base that something terrible was happening to the country and promised that if they won the 2010 election they could undo the damage Obama had done. The strategy worked. Republicans won the 2010 election, and they won it in a big way. But then they couldn't undo what Obama had done. And their base was too scared to simply accept that.
Republicans told their voters to freak out. So their voters freaked out.
Donald Trump is leading the Republican primary. Ted Cruz is in second place. They are both candidates who, in different ways, are powered by the conviction that politics as traditionally practiced isn't good enough anymore.
It's folly to try to reduce any moment in politics down to a single cause. But one thing that connects Trump and Cruz is their demonstrated agreement with grassroots conservatives that something has gone deeply wrong in America and the traditional tools of politics are insufficient if you want to fix it.
Trump is a strongman who promises a new level of political confrontation, while Cruz is a hardcore ideologue who literally shut down the government in an effort to defund Obamacare. If you believe American politics is truly broken and something precious about this country is on the verge of being lost forever, these are the kinds of men you turn to.
Republican voters have good reason believe American politics is truly broken and something precious about this country is on the verge of being lost forever. They have been told that, again and again, by every leader and pundit in their party, for years.
They were told that by Mitt Romney, who said we are "inches away from no longer being a free economy." They were told that by John Boehner, who won a House majority based on the promise that he could repeal Obamacare even though he knew nothing of the sort was true. They've been told this by writers like Kraushaar, who even now argue that Obamacare was an epochal abuse of the political system that set the country — or at least the Republican Party — on a path to ruin.
And those are the sober, establishment-oriented figures I'm quoting. What GOP voters have heard on talk radio has been much, much worse.
What's interesting about Kraushaar's column isn't the novelty of the thesis but the persistence of the metathesis. Republicans have worked for years to radicalize their base against Obama, to persuade them that something truly different and terrifying is going on, and in that project they have enjoyed a catastrophic success.
Now elite Republicans are panicking as they watch their base turn to different and terrifying kinds of politicians in response. But even as the strategy of calculated hysteria destroys them, they can't seem to stop arguing that the Obama era — as represented, in this case, by Obamacare — has been a scary aberration in American politics.
Republicans desperately need to persuade their base that this moment isn't as dire as they think it is and a more conventional class of political figures is appropriate to meet it. But doing so would require such a radical revision of the party's core narrative — a narrative they themselves believe — that it's become effectively impossible.