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The Russia Scandal Is Distracting Democrats From Trumpcare

Republicans are secretly crafting a health care bill. Where's the outrage?

Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Earlier this year, as the Russia scandal heated up, a number of commentators bemoaned Washington’s “obsession” with the story. The Independent’s Andrew Buncombe, noting that “there remains no evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government to influence the election,” wrote that “the Siberian Candidate theory is so dangerous is that it is a distraction from more pressing issues. Based on Trump’s first weeks in office, it is clear he is a threat to many things that Americans value.” That complaint persists on the left—and, in a different form, on the right. “Right now the distraction of all things Russia, and all things Trump-Russia, is distracting us from everything right now,” Senator Rand Paul told Reason last week. “I think it has been overplayed.”

Both Buncombe and Paul are right, to a point. Consider the news of late.

As Vox’s Sarah Kliff reported on Monday, “Senate Republicans began to coalesce around the framework of a plan to repeal and replace [Obamacare] last week. Their plan would, like the bill the House passed in May, almost certainly cause millions of low-income Americans to lose coverage by ending the Medicaid expansion. It would help the young and healthy at the expense of the older and the sick.” Later that day, Axios reported that Republicans had no plans to release a draft of their bill. “We aren’t stupid,” a GOP aide said.

Come Tuesday, America’s four most influential papers featured stories about anti-government protests in Russia, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s then-upcoming Senate testimony, and the possibility that President Donald Trump might fire special counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the Justice Department’s Russia investigation—but nothing about Republican senators’ coalescing around a health care bill to deprive many millions of Americans of insurance.

So from a liberal perspective, while the Russia story isn’t precisely a “distraction”—the word implies there’s nothing to see here, which is false—it certainly has overshadowed other “pressing issues” that merit widespread attention, the most urgent of which is the Senate’s secret health care bill. From a GOP perspective, though, the Russia story is precisely a distraction—and Republicans are taking advantage of it by trying to sneak this bill through the Senate before anyone notices.

Democrats, caught flat-footed, are now playing catch-up to make the public aware of what the Republicans are attempting. But the uneven attention to the Russia story and health care reform also raises a crucial question for the left: What is the goal of the Resistance? Is it to defeat Trump, Trumpism, or the Republican Party?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is the anti-Trump, as stealthily effective as the president is noisily ineffective. McConnell uses backroom deals and parliamentary maneuvering to achieve his goals, whether it was obstructing President Barack Obama’s agenda or advancing Republican policies now. He’s also rhetorically sly. Last month, he told Bloomberg TV, “I think we could do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things so that we can focus on our agenda, which is deregulations, tax reform and repealing and replacing Obamacare.” Even then, McConnell probably knew that such drama would prove useful. Now, he’s on the verge of one of his biggest legislative heists yet: passing some version of Obamacare repeal in the Senate, a task that many pundits dismissed as all about impossible a few weeks ago. McConnell has been negotiating over the bill in secret, with plans to push it through as quickly as possible before the July break, because he knows how broadly unpopular the House’s American Health Care Act is.

Such covert legislating poses a problem for Democrats in defending Obamacare: Their most potent weapon against Trump is outrage, which has fueled massive protests since inauguration, but it’s difficult to get the public worked up over deals cut in the dark. Democratic senators are certainly trying, though. “While people watched the Sessions hearing, Senate Republicans worked behind closed doors to pass a disastrous secret health care bill,” New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand tweeted on Tuesday. Her Connecticut colleague Chris Murphy told Politico that Republicans are “hoping that the Russia scandal drowns out the fact they’re ready to steal health care from 23 million Americans to give a tax cut to their wealthy friends.”

Gillibrand and Murphy are speaking to a simple point: Attention and outrage are limited resources for an opposition party trying to mobilize the masses, and right now, the Russia story is dominating headlines. But not long ago, the Republicans’ Obamacare repeal efforts did command the media’s attention and public’s outrage—specifically when the House first attempted to pass the AHCA, and when it succeeded in its second attempt. Republican congressmen were literally running scared from angry constituents, and the press couldn’t get enough of the raucous town hall meetings.

This, undoubtedly, is why Republican senators have decided to keep their own bill secret—to deprive the media of details, and thus deprive the public of fuel for outrage. By all appearances, their strategy is working.

Gillibrand and Murphy’s rhetoric notwithstanding, Democrats in the Senate seem to be treating healthcare as a secondary concern. A top Senate aide told Stein that “not going nuclear on AHCA also allows them to hammer out bipartisan Russian sanctions deal.” From a parliamentary point of view, this is a defensible position. The Democrats have few cards to play; they can’t filibuster the legislation, but they can hold a vote-a-ramaThey might want to wait for a later emergency to grind the Senate to a halt. Also, “going nuclear” might make more sense once the details of the bill are public, giving the Democrats a more specific enemy to rally against. 

Still, whatever the logic behind the Democrats’ strategy, some activists are starting to panic, believing that the fight is being lost due to complacency and disengagement.  “There’s no shortage of passionate opposition to Trumpcare, but there’s a profound shortage of awareness that the beast is back,” Ben Wikler, Move On’s Washington director, told the New Republic’s Graham Vyse. “Big chunks of the American public have been lulled into a dangerous belief that Trumpcare is not going anywhere. The fact is, we’re in a code-red emergency.” Stopping the Senate’s health care bill will require massive mobilization, he said. “A biblical flood of phone calls is necessary but not sufficient to stop Trumpcare. At this point, for Republican senators to vote against the bill they would have to feel like supporting it is an existential threat to their political careers, and that means surround-sound, defending resistance. It means phones ringing off the hook. Emails being jammed. Protesters shouting at them when they go to the grocery store.”

The ubiquitous Russia story is a barrier to this type of political mobilization. For all the attention the scandal deserves, it is also, from the point of view of resisting the Trump agenda, counterproductive and politically demobilizing. The Russia story is high political theater, with senators grilling top government officials and damaging information leaking almost daily from the White House and law enforcement agencies. There’s very little room in this drama for activists. At best, if the Senate or some other branch of the government is seen as failing to do its duties, protestors might play a role in raising a stink. But on the whole, the Russia investigation is one where the system proceeds according to its own rules, while the public looks on.

The battle over health care, by contrast, requires enflaming mass passions. Democrats and activists were able to do so earlier this year, mobilizing voters to attend town halls and call their congressional representatives. But as the Republicans started working in secret and the Russia story started dominating the news, it’s been hard to sustain the needed level of outrage. While there have been massive rallies over the last few months focused on women, climate change, immigrants, and impeachment, attempts to organize large marches around healthcare have fizzled. 

Which brings us back to the question: What is the goal of the Resistance? If the goal is to defeat Trump, then it makes sense to a focus on finding an impeachable offense. If the goal is to defeat Trumpism, the battle should focus on dislodging Trump’s ideological allies, like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, from power. And if the goal is to fight the Republican Party, then the highest priority has to be issues like health care, where the divide between the Democrats and the GOP is stark. If the Republican health care bill becomes law, Democrats must take some of the blame. They are too narrowly focused on opposing Trump—on trying to take him down over Russia—rather than opposing the policies he’s pursuing, which couldn’t get anywhere without the Republican Party.