What the GOP Doesn't Understand About Its Own Voters

When it comes to health care and entitlements, the party’s policies don't always align with its coalition’s beliefs.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gestures while speaking at a July news conference on Capitol Hill.
There are ideological divisions between GOP leadership and voters on two big issues: health care and federal funding for programs like Medicare and Medicaid. (Andrew Harnik / AP)

The Senate Republican health-care bill has been repeatedly crushed in a slow-motion collision between the party’s historic ideology and the interests of its modern electoral coalition. Yet congressional Republicans appear determined to plow right through the wreckage.

Even as the Senate’s latest effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act collapsed on Tuesday, the House Republican leadership released a 10-year federal-budget blueprint that points them toward a similar confrontation, between their dominant small-government dogma and the economic needs of their increasingly blue-collar and older white base.

John F. Kennedy famously said that failure is an orphan. But the failure, at least for now, of the GOP drive against the ACA has many parents. One was a distracted and ineffectual President Trump. Even higher on the list sits Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who displayed a blinding hubris that will forever cloud his previous reputation for legislative wizardry. Operating with unprecedented secrecy and insularity, McConnell degraded Senate tradition by refusing to hold any public hearings or committee votes on the legislation. His closed-door process provoked not only unified opposition from Democrats, but also every major medical stakeholder. He sought to pressure dissenting senators with unrealistic vote deadlines—then retreated as they repeatedly called his bluff.

For all of these tactical missteps, the fundamental problem for the GOP was larger. Both the House and Senate legislation seemed hatched in a time warp. In their determination to slash taxes for top earners, torch regulations on insurers, and to roll back federal spending on expanded insurance coverage (either through the private exchanges or Medicaid), each bill reflected the common Ronald Reagan-era Republican belief that their coalition is bound together above all by a determination to shrink government.

But since then, Republicans have grown increasingly dependent on blue-collar, older, and non-urban white voters who do not always agree that “government is the problem,” as Reagan declared. While these voters, many of them economically strained, remain deeply skeptical of programs like food stamps that shift resources to those they consider undeserving, they have shown much more tolerance for federal spending that financially supports people like them.

The failure to understand that distinction crippled the repeal effort. From every angle, the GOP bills imposed heavy costs on their own voters. The Urban Institute found that among those who would lose coverage under the Senate bill, 80 percent lacked a college degree, about 70 percent were in a household where someone worked full-time, and nearly 60 percent were white. Older working adults confronted enormous premium increases. Rural areas faced disproportionate risk from the Medicaid cuts because employer-provided insurance is less common there. Counties on the front line of the opioid crisis warned the Medicaid cuts would devastate their response.

All of the groups and places on that list preponderantly backed Trump last fall. As a candidate, he recognized that reflexive hostility to government did not serve his voters’ needs: He even pledged to defend Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Yet on health care, Trump fatally deferred to the libertarian-infused instincts of House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Like many congressional Republicans, Ryan enshrines retrenching government above all other goals. On health care, that crusade opened a breach with the GOP’s own voters: The proposals (particularly the Medicaid and insurance-regulation cutbacks) faced widespread resistance from blue-collar and older whites, even in polling conducted by prominent GOP firms like Public Opinion Strategies. In this week’s ABC/Washington Post national poll, Trump’s approval rating was 19 points lower than his vote last November among white women without a college degree, and 16 points lower among non-college-educated white men.

Those men are likely to stick with Republicans in the midterm elections. But veteran Democratic pollster Geoff Garin said the recoil on health care is so great that Democrats next year could eliminate the GOP advantage with blue-collar white women. Indeed, the ABC/Washington Post survey showed those working-class women—who backed both Trump and GOP House candidates by nearly 30 percentage points in November—now narrowly prefer that Democrats control Congress after 2018. Cutting Medicaid, especially while slashing taxes for the highest earners, puts “Republicans on the wrong side of the populist divide that Trump himself exploited,” Garin said.

Incredibly, even as the health-care offensive disintegrated into disarray, Ryan bugled his troops for another charge at the same line. The new House Republican budget plan not only reaffirms the massive Medicaid cuts in their ACA repeal bill, but it also reduces Medicare spending by nearly $500 billion. It revives Ryan’s extended crusade to transform the retirement program into a premium-support system that provides seniors money to purchase private insurance. Converting Medicare this way has long faced deep public resistance, particularly among older whites: When the Kaiser Family Foundation last polled on the idea in 2015, nearly three-fourths of whites older than 50 opposed it.

Yet the Trump administration offered a positive initial reaction to the House plan. John Weaver, the chief political strategist for Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich, views that as another step toward Trump surrendering to what Weaver  calls the “Ayn Rand wing” of the party, a reference to the famous libertarian author.  “No matter how you look at the future growth of the party, whether we keep the current [mostly white and blue-collar] base, or change to attract more Millennials and people of color, the Ayn Rand approach isn’t going to win,” Weaver said. “I thought Trump had it figured out in the campaign. But that’s not who is sitting in the Oval Office.”

Trump clearly didn’t enjoy the bumpy ride to this week’s dead end on health care. But whether or not the president recognizes it, the House Republican budget is quickly buckling him up for another head-on collision with the financial interests of voters at the core of his coalition.