Whatever else can be said about the Republican Senate health care bill, it cannot be accused of pandering. The Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA) – which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) hopes to bring to a vote next week – is astonishingly unpopular, often getting less than 20 percent support in polls.
There isn’t a single state in which a majority favors the GOP’s proposals. In a starkly polarized political environment, it’s almost impossible for a major proposal to be this widely hated. So why would the House pass a similar bill, and why didn’t McConnell immediately bury it?
Many Republicans legislators are insulated from even the fiercest political backlash because the political playing field is tilted strongly towards the GOP side. Now the White House is about to make it even more so with a scheme to shrink the electorate and skew it towards the GOP.
In late June, the Trump administration announced a series of measures to constrict the body politic, making it older, whiter, and wealthier – and therefore more Republican. The Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity is asking for detailed state data about voters. There already is evidence that merely asking for the data is stopping people from registering. Voting rights experts say that because voter rolls inevitably contain errors, such as still listing voters who recently moved, the Trump administration is likely planning to use these discrepancies to justify vote suppression efforts such as onerous identification requirements. (On Monday, while awaiting the outcome of legal challenges to the request and the refusal of some secretaries of state to comply, Trump’s commission put the request on hold.)
That same week, the White House nominated Hans von Spakovsky, who has a lengthy history of making unsupported claims of voter fraud, to join the election integrity commission. The commission is chaired by Kris Kobach, Kansas’s controversial secretary of state, whose signature voter-ID bill, passed by his state’s legislature in 2011, has already been subject to four separate lawsuits by the ACLU. The commission was organized to find support for Trump’s unfounded claim that, “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” Its efforts thus far are designed to justify state vote suppression measures that harm Democrats without actually making election results any more reliable.
Civil rights advocates fear that in the months and years ahead state data will be used to deregister thousands or even millions of disproportionately minority voters. As voting right reporter Ari Berman puts it, Trump’s commission “appear[s] to mark the beginning of a nationwide voter-suppression campaign, based on spreading lies about voter fraud to justify enacting policies that purge the voter rolls, and make registration and voting more difficult.” This can determine the outcome of an election, as it did in the 2000 presidential race in Florida, where hundreds of thousands of voters who shared the same name as a convicted felon were disenfranchised.
Chasing imaginary voter impersonation, disenfranchising millions of eligible voters in the process, is not just an obsession of Trump’s. Republican lawyers are circulating the country urging state and local officials to purge voter rolls. Conservative lawyers are targeting districts with large numbers of racial minorities and few resources for legal defense. Republican state legislatures have also recently passed measures like requiring voters to present government-issued photo IDs and restrictions on early voting.
Republicans are doing everything they can to keep Democratic-leaning constituencies – people of color, the poor and young people – from voting. The party claims to have suddenly developed a peculiar fixation with election security, but it’s plainly about constricting the electorate to protect Republicans from feeling voters’ wrath over their unpopular policies. These efforts are not always well-disguised. A federal judge observed that a North Carolina voter suppression law, “target[s] African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
Between now and the next cycle of elections in 2018 and 2020, Republican state legislatures are likely to pass more and more vote suppression measures. While many of these laws have such a disparate impact on Americans of color that they appear to violate the Voting Rights Act or the Equal Protection Amendment of the Constitution, it seems unlikely that a Department of Justice headed by Trump appointee Jeff Sessions or a conservative-leaning Supreme Court will overrule them.
Republicans are so determined to shrink and tilt the electorate because they see it as the only way to hold power while advancing an unpopular agenda.
The core components of the BCRA – a massive cut to Medicaid spending, deregulation of insurance companies, less generous subsidies to buy insurance and a huge tax cut for the very wealthy – are all ideas with no sizeable popular constituency.
It’s not just healthcare. Every major item on the GOP’s agenda polls badly. After healthcare, Republicans want to pass more tax cuts for the rich, which are very unpopular among all voters except Republican elites. The rollback of environmental regulations – which under Trump’s EPA director Scott Pruitt has been one of the most consequential results of Trump’s victory – is widely despised. The public also opposes loosening workplace safety standards and defunding Planned Parenthood. The Republican agenda couldn’t be less popular if it was designed to repel majorities.
But Republicans won control of the federal government, despite losing the popular vote for president, through structural advantages that give rural and older white Americans outsized power. The Senate vastly over-represents small, predominantly white rural states. Democrats in the Senate, many representing large states such as California, have received millions more votes than their Republican colleagues who hold the majority of seats. The Electoral College, which also favors small states, allowed Donald Trump to capture the White House despite getting nearly 3 million fewer votes than Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
Unless something changes radically, we can expect a similar outcome in next year’s midterms. Polls show that Democratic House candidates will get many more votes than their Republican opponents. But because of the natural clustering of Democratic supporters in cities, and aggressive Republican gerrymandering that has given the GOP two or three times as many House seats as Democrats in states with roughly evenly split electorates such as Pennsylvania and North Carolina, that might not be enough. The Democrats could get decisively more votes and still fail to take back the House, as happened in 2012.
Most political parties try to assemble majorities by offering policies people like. The contemporary Republican Party is a different kind of party. Even if much of their legislative agenda fails, they show no signs of tacking away from their unpopular, far-right agenda. And thanks to the various ways in which Republican officials frustrate the will of the majority, they might keep getting away with it.