There’s so much good stuff in Tim Alberta’s exhaustive Politico Magazine account of the week the GOP met its waterloo on Obamacare that it’ stunning to see the writer fall back on a tired trope that’s long been untrue but was proven conclusively during this debacle: that Paul Ryan is some sort of brilliant policy wonk. It actually includes this line: “If the bill failed because Trump is a great salesman with a poor grasp of policy, it also failed because Ryan is a poor salesman with a great grasp of policy.”
The AHCA wasn’t a resounding failure despite Republicans owning all three branches of the government simply because it suffered from poor marketing but because it was a piece of junk that would have cost tens of millions Americans insurance while doing little to control costs. Ultra-conservatives deemed the bill a “poorly conceived mess” because it wasn’t draconian enough, but that’s also an apropos description of it regardless of your politics.
The speaker has spent decades straddling the worlds of politics and policy, and is infinitely more comfortable operating in the latter. He has dozens of friends around town in the constellation of conservative think tanks, lobby shops, activist groups and media outlets. Knowing that health care was batting leadoff for the new, unified Republican government, it would seem a no-brainer for the speaker to spend a few days, if not a few weeks, meeting with leading voices on the right to introduce the American Health Care Act, answer their questions, accept their criticisms and, most important, preempt any attacks on the legislation itself. After all, as Democrats love to point out, Ryan had seven years to plan for this moment—first as Budget chairman, then as Ways and Means chairman, then as speaker—and if anyone on the right was ready, it ought to have been him.
But Ryan didn’t feel such preventative measures were necessary. After days of drafting the bill in secretive locations at the Capitol—and Sen. Rand Paul, a hard-core Obamacare critic, exposing the absurdity by bringing reporters along as he hunted door-to-door for a copy—the text was leaked, and then unceremoniously released, without any clearly coordinated media strategy between the speaker’s office and the White House. Conservatives around Washington, including some of Ryan’s longtime friends, were stunned. “The bill has had the worst rollout of any major piece of legislation in memory,” Rich Lowry, editor of National Review and a longtime Ryan ally, wrote in his Politico Magazine column on March 15.
Back in 2013, when the so-called Gang of Eight had authored its comprehensive immigration reform bill, Sen. Marco Rubio spent weeks making the rounds and meeting with top influencers on the right, taking unlimited time to answer every question and consider every criticism. He talked to journalists, grassroots leaders and academics; he offered himself as a human sacrifice to every prominent voice in conservative talk radio, attempting to neutralize opposition to the bill before it materialized. It never became law, but Rubio did everything he could. It passed the Senate, at least, before dying a quick death in the House—and that was in large measure thanks to having a media-savvy Tea Party darling take the lead and work conservative journalists and opinion leaders.
There was no such effort on Ryan’s part, and it showed. (Several allies argued he had done some outreach, but they failed to provide any specific examples.) After he unveiled the bill, leading health care experts on the right like Yuval Levin and Avik Roy trashed it as a poorly conceived mess.•