The Republican push to repeal and replace Obamacare is currently stalled in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has delayed a vote until after the July 4 recess because his bill doesn’t have the necessary GOP support. But this embarrassing disarray masks an even bigger problem for the party: The attempted replacement gives lie to President Donald Trump’s supposed populist credentials. Between the House and Senate health care bills, the broad outlines of Trumpcare are clear. It would be a massive tax cut for the wealthy, paid for with cuts to health care for vulnerable Americans. Trump was right when he called the House bill “mean,” but the same can be said for Trumpcare in all its forms.
This creates an opportunity for the Democrats to do something in 2018 and 2020 that they conspicuously failed to do in 2016: portray Trump as a plutocrat whose goal is to help the rich at the expense of the poor and working class.
This line of attack might seem obvious, since Trump has long admitted he’s a rapacious tycoon. “I like money,” he told voters in September. “I’m very greedy. I’m a greedy person. I shouldn’t tell you that, I’m a greedy—I’ve always been greedy. I love money, right?” This quote might have been damaging on its own, but Trump spun his greed into a populist, nationalistic message. After saying the above, he added this proviso: “But, you know what? I want to be greedy for our country. I want to be greedy. I want to be so greedy for our country. I want to take back money.” Enough voters bought it—not that he would make them rich, necessarily, but somehow put more money in their pocket.
Democrats have succeeded before by portraying a wealthy Republican candidate as the enemy of ordinary people. After all, that was President Barack Obama’s argument against Mitt Romney in 2012—that the GOP nominee was a vulture capitalist who had gotten rich by downsizing companies. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, tried to damage Trump by invidiously comparing him to “real billionaire” Warren Buffett, making the case that Trump wasn’t really as rich as he said he was—that he was a liar, a tax cheat, and a bad businessman. “It does take a certain amount of genius to lose a billion dollars in a single year,” she quipped. But this argument only bolstered Trump’s image as the insurgent outsider against the elitist establishment. Clinton’s eschewal of a populist strategy was motivated in part by her quest for Romney voters—moderate Republicans who could be wooed, or so her campaign thought. But Trump ended up winning the suburbs by more points than Romney did.
A populist attack on Trump might not have worked in 2016, even if Clinton had tried. Trump succeeded in part because his contradictory rhetoric allowed voters to see in him what they wanted. For populists, there was certainly enough red meat about economic isolationism and preserving social programs to make him appealing. As president, though, Trump can be held accountable for his campaign promises—specifically his repeated vow not to cut Medicaid. Trumpcare is nothing if not a massive cut to Medicaid, which may explain why less than 40 percent of Americans approve of the plan.
The unpopularity of Trumpcare is creating an opening for Democrats. “In a polling memo circulated by the Democratic group Priorities USA,” the Associated Press reported on Tuesday, “Democrats say they have seen a significant shift in the last two months in the number of people that believe the president sides with the wealthy and big corporations over average Americans. Democrats plan to turn that message into a prominent sales pitch for their candidates and surrogates, and could make it the theme of ads as well.” Guy Cecil, the chairman of Priorities USA, told AP that the shift was particularly notable among voters who had moved from voting for Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016, with health care as the key wedge issue. “The reason that health care is so powerful is because it directly affects people’s lives and there’s a clear trade-off: You’re giving tax cuts to the rich; you’re taking health care away from everybody else.”
An NPR poll released Wednesday is another encouraging sign for Democrats. Trump’s disapproval rating is at a record high, and while “his base hasn’t abandoned him,” his “support has eroded with independent voters.” NPR reported that “there are some warning signs for the president among some of his key demographic groups. Only 52 percent of white, non-college educated Americans approve of the job he’s doing, though just 37 percent disapprove. And that is higher than most other subgroups. More worrisome for the president, among older Americans, 60 and up, he’s underwater—47 percent disapprove, while 43 percent approve.” Trump, of course, won white, non-college educated voters and those over 60.
Senator Elizabeth Warren clearly believes many of these voters can be won back to the Democratic Party. As the Wall Street Journal reports, she’s campaigning for her 2018 re-election in working-class towns in Massachusetts where Trump did well last year. And she’s doing so by amping up the populist rhetoric with causes like a national health insurance system. “President Obama tried to move us forward with health-care coverage by using a conservative model that came from one of the conservative think tanks that had been advanced by a Republican governor in Massachusetts,” Warren said last week. “Now it’s time for the next step. And the next step is single payer.”
Trumpcare is such a fiasco that Democrats can afford some flexibility in their health care policies. Left-wing firebrands like Warren can push for single payer while centrist Democrats argue for mending and expanding Obamacare. This is a national debate that’s worth having, an immeasurably more valuable one than the current debate. Nor would it distract from the stark difference between the two party’s positions: While all Democrats want to increase health care coverage, Trump and the Republicans are deliberately trying to take it away from more than 20 million Americans. If voters empower the Democrats to stop or reverse the Republican plan, they’ll also be empowering Democrats to go even further to achieve universal health care in America.