The Free­dom Cau­cus blew its chance to gov­ern

The Denver Post - - OPINION - Spe­cial to The Wash­ing­ton Post By Marc A. Thiessen

Afew days be­fore the House Free­dom Cau­cus brought down the Amer­i­can Health Care Act, Rep. Mark Mead­ows laid out the stakes for his group: “This is a defin­ing mo­ment for our na­tion, but it’s also a defin­ing mo­ment for the Free­dom Cau­cus.”

The North Carolina Repub­li­can was right. The vote was in­deed a defin­ing mo­ment — a test in which the Free­dom Cau­cus had to de­cide: Would it re­main a mi­nori­tar­ian op­po­si­tion bloc whose only role was to de­fend truth with­out com­pro­mise? Or could it be­come some­thing big­ger, trans­form­ing it­self into a ma­jori­tar­ian gov­ern­ing force that could lead Congress to­ward achiev­able con­ser­va­tive vic­to­ries and have a last­ing im­pact on the di­rec­tion of our coun­try?

The Free­dom Cau­cus failed the test.

For weeks, as Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump courted the group, mem­bers of the cau­cus used their lever­age to make the bill bet­ter. They asked for lan­guage cap­ping the max­i­mum in­come to re­ceive the tax credit — and got it. They asked to al­low states to choose be­tween a tra­di­tional block grant and a per capita block grant — and got it. They asked to al­low states to im­pose work re­quire­ments on able-bod­ied Med­i­caid re­cip­i­ents — and got it. They asked for lan­guage pre­vent­ing non-Med­i­caid-ex­pan­sion states from be­com­ing ex­pan­sion states — and got it. They asked for flex­i­bil­ity for states to change “es­sen­tial health ben­e­fits” — and got it.

But each time they got a con­ces­sion, and were asked to sup­port the bill, they in­stead came up with new sets of de­mands that made the leg­is­la­tion in­creas­ingly un­pass­able. Even­tu­ally it be­came clear to Trump that the Free­dom Cau­cus would never take yes for an an­swer. So he cut them off, send­ing for­mer Free­dom Cau­cus mem­ber Mick Mul­vaney, his Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Bud­get di­rec­tor, to Capi­tol Hill to de­liver a mes­sage: The pres­i­dent was done ne­go­ti­at­ing.

That was the mo­ment the Free­dom Cau­cus made its choice. Cau­cus mem­bers could have pock­eted their wins, de­clared vic­tory and voted to move the leg­is­la­tion for­ward — vow­ing to keep work­ing to im­prove the bill. But un­able or un­will­ing to ac­cept suc­cess, they chose in­stead to de­liver Trump a ma­jor de­feat on the first leg­isla­tive ef­fort of his pres­i­dency.

“The re­sult,” one se­nior GOP of­fi­cial told me, “will likely be that the White House will no longer ne­go­ti­ate with them in fu­ture de­bates and will go to moder­ate mem­bers and Democrats to get things done. The House Free­dom Cau­cus has made it­self ir­rel­e­vant.”

In­deed, Trump is al­ready writ­ing them off. He blasted the group on Twit­ter, declar­ing, “Democrats are smil­ing in D.C. that the Free­dom Cau­cus, with the help of Club For Growth and Her­itage, have saved Planned Par­ent­hood & Ocare!”

And in an in­ter­view with The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Bob Costa on Fri­day, Trump said his strat­egy go­ing for­ward will be to let Oba­macare fail and then work with Democrats to fix it. “We’ll end up with a bet­ter health care plan. A great plan,” he said, adding, “And you wouldn’t need the Free­dom Cau­cus.”

That’s the les­son Trump took from this ex­pe­ri­ence: Democrats whose motto is “Re­sist!” would be more rea­son­able part­ners to work with than the Free­dom Cau­cus.

Thank­fully for con­ser­va­tives, Democrats have thus far shown no in­ter­est in work­ing with Trump. Per­haps, one day, Oba­macare will de­te­ri­o­rate to the point where Democrats are will­ing to put aside their feel­ings and cut a deal. If they do, it will be a far more left-lean­ing, big-gov­ern­ment ap­proach to health care than any­thing the Free­dom Cau­cus op­posed in this leg­is­la­tion.

Free­dom Cau­cus mem­bers need to un­der­stand that they are not in the op­po­si­tion any­more. In the op­po­si­tion, you can vote to re­peal Oba­macare 60 times with­out giv­ing much thought to what comes next. But gov­ern­ing is dif­fer­ent. Gov­ern­ing is messy. You have to make com­pro­mises and con­ces­sions.

Free­dom Cau­cus mem­bers had a chance to re­peal the in­di­vid­ual man­date and the em­ployer man­date, trans­form Med­i­caid, end $1 tril­lion in Oba­macare taxes, ex­pand health sav­ings ac­counts and de­fund Planned Par­ent­hood. In­stead, they chose to keep Oba­macare in­tact. They failed to lead. They chose to think and act like an op­po­si­tional mi­nor­ity, in­stead of a ma­jori­tar­ian po­lit­i­cal move­ment.

Un­less and un­til they choose oth­er­wise, they will never fun­da­men­tally change the di­rec­tion of Amer­ica — which, one as­sumes, is why its mem­bers ran for of­fice in the first place.

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