The return of the American Health Care Act this week played out like a recycled Hollywood action sequel: with a lot of explosions but much less buzz in the theater.
Consider the following chart, which shows how often “Obamacare repeal” was mentioned on national television. When the AHCA first came up for a vote in March, there was tremendous, wall-to-wall coverage. At the peak of its notoriety, the issue was talked about nearly 1,000 times in a single day.
This week, as a revised version of the bill hurtled toward a second vote in the House (and a narrow victory), the media was much less attentive: There are not even a quarter as many mentions on national TV. Google searches for the “AHCA” have also been down, with traffic only about 10 percent of what it was during its March peak.
The latest incarnation of the AHCA is just as controversial as the old one — and this one actually made it to a vote that passed the House. So how did it fly under the radar so successfully?
For one, nobody really expected the bill to come back. Activist groups, who turned out en masse to protest the bill in town halls across America, thought they had made a convincing case against it the first time around, as my colleague Jeff Stein notes.
There were signs that another vote was on the horizon: In the wake of the AHCA’s first defeat, Republican leaders swiftly promised to resurrect it. But that pledge wasn’t taken seriously — many dismissed it as wounded talk from a party that had just suffered a major humiliation. Besides, the AHCA had exposed a huge fracture within the Republican Party, and few thought the GOP could bridge that gap in just a few weeks.
“The bill went down because it was too bad for Republican moderates and not bad enough for their conservatives,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) told the New York Times in March, days after the AHCA failed in the House. “I don’t know how they reconcile the divides within their own conference, never mind find any Democratic votes.”
The issue also seemed to have fallen off of President Donald Trump’s radar. Shortly after the bill failed in March, he said: “I think we have to let Obamacare go its way for a little while. And we'll see how things go.”
Since so much of the news cycle follows Trump, when the president isn’t tweeting about an issue it tends to fade into the background. The intervening weeks have brought a meeting with the Chinese president, drama with North Korea, an averted government shutdown, and a special election in Georgia that many interpreted as a crystal ball for Democrats’ chances in 2018.
Will all that going on, Republicans’ vague efforts to resurrect the AHCA hardly seemed worth a story — until this week, when the bill suddenly came up for a vote. It helps, too, that the GOP has been playing blitzkrieg politics, yet again plunging ahead on a major piece of legislation without waiting for a score from the Congressional Budget Office.
Finally, there’s something to be said here about the limits to the public’s attention span. A few years ago, for instance, there was a national protest against a law in Arizona that many believed would have allowed businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people. Eventually, Gov. Jan Brewer bowed to the pressure and vetoed the legislation. Activists celebrated. But just a few months later, a very similar bill came up in Mississippi. It passed.
Public outrage has a refractory period. It’s hard to focus national anger on an issue for too long. People’s minds wander, and sometimes stuff slips through the cracks. Or the House.