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What Republicans Should Have Known

Senator Dean Heller’s position on health care reform—he’s against it after having been for it while he was against it—has become a contortionist act worthy of the Circus Circus big top or Absinthe tent. But the Republicans’ recent display of legislative incompetence also brings to mind Harry Reid and Ralph Roske.

Now, let’s get the conflicts out of the way: Reid’s name will be on an endowed chair in the UNLV history department, where I work and Roske was my adviser at UNLV. But they are important to discuss because they teach us something about what happened.

Republicans spent seven years declaring the Affordable Care Act awful because it was a job killer (it wasn’t), it would ruin private enterprise (it didn’t) and it would kill your grandmother (she’s more likely to die sooner without it). It needed to be replaced, they said. But in all that time they never figured out what to replace it with or how to do so.

Reid understood, in ways McConnell doesn’t or won’t, that each senator represents a state with its own unique views and constituencies.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell decided to force through a bill, whether to prove he’s a genius or because his wife is transportation secretary and her boss made it clear that there needed to be a bill, who knows. It turned into a circus that demonstrated—whatever your view of Obamacare, its supporters and its opponents—that McConnell couldn’t lead a one-man parade down a one-way street.

Reid spent more than a decade as Senate Democratic leader. His longtime aide Adam Jentleson made the point that Reid’s caucus never surprised him in the way that McConnell’s just did. Perhaps it has something to do with McConnell gathering a bunch of fellow old white guys to write a bill in secret and simply emailing orders to the other senators. Reid actually talked with the people involved.

Also, while McConnell only had to get to 50 and couldn’t, Reid needed all 60 members of his caucus to pass Obamacare (among other things) and he got them. Critics attacked the deals he made—McConnell was one of those critics—then negotiated and threatened both left and right to win votes for his bill. In the end, he lacked them, but went ahead.
Republicans have long attacked Reid as both an evil genius and an incompetent boob. Of course, those claims can be compatible—you can be smart about some things and dumb about others—but they seemed to think he was a terrible Senate leader. That’s backwards: They hated him because he was so successful, and McConnell’s incompetence just brought that into even sharper relief.

All that mattered to McConnell was passing a bill, any bill.

All that mattered to McConnell was passing a bill, any bill. That was bad for him and members of his caucus, including Heller, whose indecision will cost him dearly. Republicans can’t trust Heller, and northern Democrats who might have voted for him out of regional chauvinism can see through him. Reid understood, in ways McConnell doesn’t or won’t, that each senator represents a state with its own unique views and constituencies.

Roske taught that lesson, and wrote about it. In 1956, John F. Kennedy published Profiles in Courage and included the story of Senator Edmund Ross of Kansas, who claimed to have “looked down into my open grave” and buried his political career by voting to acquit President Andrew Johnson of impeachment charges in 1868. Roske was writing the biography of Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, another of the seven Republican senators who voted to acquit Johnson.

Roske knew Ross was exaggerating. He published an article, “The Seven Martyrs?” in The American Historical Review, the Holy Grail in my field. Roske argued—correctly—that the claims their votes on Johnson destroyed those Republicans’ careers were wrong. None of them were reelected, true, but for different reasons—health problems, changes in politics, other issues in their home states.

It isn’t hard to guess that if Collins or Murkowski had folded, Graham or Johnson would have cast the needed vote, and they would have become the newest martyrs.

In addition, Roske used to say in class that if any of the seven had switched, another Republican would have replaced him. Although some Republicans wanted Johnson removed from office, many feared the fallout from that removal, from the effects on the president’s powers and the impending presidential election to possible changes in fiscal policy.

John McCain became heroic in some quarters—mostly Democratic—for voting against a wildly unpopular measure that made no sense. Obviously, fellow Republicans Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski faced more criticism and threats beforehand, and it’s hard to keep from pointing out that two women did the heavy lifting and a man got the credit (so hard that here I am pointing it out).

But McCain, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin all had been critical of the process in a joint press conference. It isn’t hard to guess that if Collins or Murkowski had folded, Graham or Johnson would have cast the needed vote, and they would have become the newest martyrs.

We don’t know that, of course. McConnell clearly didn’t and should have. Reid certainly would have.

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