Sunday, July 30, 2017

Magic Mitch McConnell's Skinny Mirror

by Michael Dorf

In an episode of Seinfeld, Elaine buys a dress that looks good on her in the store, only to find that when she tries it on at home, it is unflattering. Outraged, she concludes that the store's dressing room was outfitted with "skinny mirrors." The episode seems an apt metaphor for the bit of theater that transpired in the Senate late last week. Say what you will about Mitch McConnell's appalling record; the man is a master magician. His so-called "skinny repeal" bill was a deeply layered trick. We may never know whether its narrow defeat at the hands of a battered-but-not-beaten John McCain was itself part of the illusion. I suspect not, but focusing too much attention on McCain simply legitimates McConnell's legislative legerdemain.

Like any skilled magician, McConnell sought to distract the audience from the real action with shiny objects. Wittingly or not, McCain played the role of shiny object--but only at the denouement. The real distractor was Paul Ryan. As the vote whipping and counter-whipping proceeded late Thursday night and into Friday morning, the home audience was told that the sticking point was the House of Representatives. Would the House take the skinny repeal bill to the joint House-Senate conference committee as a mere placeholder to begin negotiations on a new bill--as McConnell assured wavering Senators--or would the House double-cross those Senators by simply enacting the skinny bill into law? Paul Ryan's eleventh-hour assurances that the skinny bill would serve only as a vehicle to get to conference satisfied McCain BFF Lindsey Graham and other reluctant GOP Senators but not Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski (despite the horse head Trump stashed under her covers), or the old Arizona warrior himself.

Collins, Murkowski, and McCain were, of course, right not to trust Ryan. He vowed to take the skinny repeal to conference, but he did not say that if no bill emerging from conference secured passage from both the House and Senate, the House would not at that point vote for the skinny repeal and thus enact it into law following what would no doubt be described by the POTUS as the most beautiful Rose Garden signing ceremony ever.

Yet Ryan was at best a MacGuffin in this episode of the long-running GOP Obamacare repeal telenovela. The reason the House posed a threat in the first place was because of the content of the skinny repeal--which was McConnell's doing. If the true purpose of the skinny repeal bill were merely to get to conference, it would have been a lot skinnier. McConnell could have offered a bill that cut Obamacare taxes and subsidies by 0.000001 percent or something equally harmless. Yet as Eric Levitz insightfully noted in New York Magazine, the actual skinny bill that McConnell put forward "was adorned with sections transparently designed to enhance the legislation’s chances of passing the House. Beyond killing the mandates so loathed by conservatives, the 'skinny' bill also defunded Planned Parenthood and subtly undermined Obamacare’s regulations of the insurance market."

Note the layers of deception. Before capitulating in light of Ryan's empty promise, Graham called the skinny bill a "fraud"--ostensibly because it was not meant to be enacted at all. But the fraud, it turned out, was the very idea that the skinny repeal bill was a fraud. Collins, Murkowski, and McCain voted no, it appears, because the fraud was not a fraud at all but the genuine "disaster" that Graham also said it was.

Was there a still deeper level? What if McConnell's true aim all along was failure? The GOP rhetoric on the Affordable Care Act has long been self-contradictory: Obamacare, we are told, is a disaster because of high premiums, high deductibles, and large numbers of people left without health insurance; yet the Republican "solution" is to cut support for it so that premiums, deductibles, and the number of uninsured all go up. Perhaps the GOP would like to appear to be making every effort to repeal Obamacare and replace it with something "terrific," but knowing that whatever legislation passes would makes things demonstrably worse, the appearance is only for show. Better, in this view, to let (i.e., try to make) the ACA "implode," as the president intermittently tweets and says, and let Democrats take the blame.

Yet the foregoing seems highly implausible and not just because Trump and his Senate GOP frenemies still haven't given up on quickly passing a repeal-and-replace bill. I do not discount the possibility that some Republican legislators secretly hope to fail in their quest to repeal the ACA. However, I am not enough of a conspiracy theorist to think that this is the actual plan. Republican House members in safe districts are more vulnerable to primary challenges from Tea Party types than are Republican Senators, but Senators are not invulnerable, and they worry a great deal about angering the base--which really does believe the self-contradictory anti-Obamacare GOP rhetoric.

Thus, I am left to conclude that McConnell's skinny-bill deception was "only" two levels deep: a fake bill that was secretly a real bill. The real question, then, is how all but three Republican Senators could have fallen for it. Or, if one thinks that the other 49 were in on the trick, one wonders how even a sizable minority of the American People could have fallen for it.

A recent episode of This American Life about magic may offer a clue. Ira Glass and David Kestenbaum (each of whom was a child magician) explain that although many magic tricks are demystified when one learns how they are done, some illusions are all the more impressive when one learns the secret--because even armed with that knowledge, the illusion persists. A truly elegant trick, they say, fools the magician himself as he performs it. Thus, for example, Penn informs the audience that a segment with a ball is performed by Teller "with just a piece of thread." It's true. You watch, knowing that a piece of thread connects the ball to Teller in some way, and that knowledge makes the trick all the more impressive because you still can't figure out how he's doing it.

Not everyone enjoys a magic show, but for those who do, what makes it work is the fact that even as part of your mind wants to know how the trick is done, another part of your mind wants to be fooled. If you are not fooled, it's no fun. A successful magic show requires both a skilled magician and an audience that, at some level, wants to believe the illusion.

A magic show, of course, is just harmless fun. Legislation that would take away health insurance from tens of millions of people is deadly serious.

To their credit, the vast majority of Americans oppose the GOP efforts to repeal the ACA. By making their voices heard, they were able to halt those efforts--at least for now. But the fact that Congress came as close as it did, and may yet succeed in this horrible endeavor, should give us pause. Clearly there are tens of millions of Americans--many of whom would lose their own health insurance--who want to believe the Republican illusion. Why?

Much of it no doubt is explained by partisanship. GOP base voters may have other reasons for supporting the Republican party, and implacable opposition to Obamacare simply comes as part of the package. But I suspect that there is also something else at work here. The people who want Obamacare repealed even against their own interest (people who are, again, a minority of the public, but a substantial minority) want to believe in McConnell's self-contradictory magic because they find the alternative too awful to contemplate: the possibility that the entire leadership of the major American party with which they identify--and not just our alternative-reality-tv president--are not magicians after all but simply con men.


Shag from Brookline said...

I'm of the view that at least 6-7 of the 49 Republican Senators who voted "yes" on the skinny were part of McCain's cabal, with McCain providing them Party cover. See my 7:34 PM comment at Neil's earlier thread.

Joe said...

(Shag referenced an article on ACA as a "super-statute" and since it late, was not able to note the author was a "she" -- the first name is somewhat unisex and "he" was used, perhaps mistakenly.)

After the final vote, this could have been part of the illusion but sorta doubt it, it was noted that McConnell looked rather pissed at what happened. If he wanted the whole thing to fail, he made a good show of not liking what went down.

The "skinny" repeal had substantive changes but itself was literally so -- it was eight pages. Now, that might be a rather dense eight, but still.

Anyway, I'll just say that repeatedly the approach of the Republicans, even when they are in power, is to always try to look beleaguered. So, they don't succeed in large part because of some sort of conspiracy, not because their platform and technique is so problematic. Being a victim is a major thing these days, down to some need to "again" make things great.

Shag from Brookline said...

Abbe writes quite well and I look forward to her article when it's published.

I saw part of the "skinny" debate by the Democrats re-run on CSPAn today and they did a good job.

Paul Krugman at his NYTimes Blog tonight reread the Heritage Plan of several decades ago comparing it to ACA, concluding that Heritage was somewhat to the left of ACA.

Joe said...

Krugman curiously leaves out the Medicaid expansion.

One blog I read that covers this topic is not a fan of the Heritage Plan comparison, thinking it gives that too much credit.

But, maybe it's partially a dispute of what the "plan" was -- I gather there was more than one. Think the Medicaid expansion is key here either way. It is a major part of ACA, would have been even bigger if the Supreme Court didn't trim its wings.

Shag from Brookline said...

Today's Daily Update at the Take Care Blog under the heading Regulation notes certain new efforts by Republicans in the Senate to undo Obamacare, including one by McCain's BFF Sen. Graham, with perhaps support from the Trump Administration. It's being reported that the Trump Administration doesn't want the Senate to do anything until Obamacare is repealed and replaced. If Sen McCain were to fold, perhaps Sen. Flake might take his place to thwart Trump from treating Republican Senators as his puppets.

The skinny on the "skinny" bill defeat continues to evolve.

David Ricardo said...

Shag is almost certainly correct in his observation that there were a lot of other Senators besides McCain ready to vote down the skinny repeal. That they did not do so was a tribute to the effectiveness of the ‘silent conspiracy’ that was in place. McConnell was probably unaware of that conspiracy, (as pointed out he’s not that smart but thinks he is and that is the easiest type of person to fool) and McConnell probably thought McCain could be brought around by Pence.

One complication that may have been decisive here is that the skinny bill required HHS to issue waivers that could not be revoked. This would have allowed states to obtain a waiver on regulations, then change the Essential Health Care Benefits provision and usher in the empty zombie like policies that Cruz wanted. Health insurance with no benefits; premiums are down (because how much do you have to charge for insurance that never pays?) and more people covered by insurance (that isn’t insurance) just as the GOP promised.

Even worse, once a state changed its requirements those requirements could be adopted by any group plan. Along with no mandate, all of this would have shattered health insurance for both individual and employer plans. A Republican dream come true, health insurance and health care solely the burden of each family with little or no government or employer help. Of course, the private sector without government interference would produce great low cost health care, just as it did before ACA.

Bob Hockett said...

Brilliant! IMHO, one of your best yet, Mike - which is saying a lot! The magic that is a great mind.

Jess Stricklan said...

Another possibility explaining why people want to believe in McConnell's "magic": they know it's not magic, and they really do want people to suffer -- even if it's them. It's a kind of morality organized power: might IS right. Under this morality, the division of society into suffering and non-suffering classes demonstrates that a society has strong people (who are rewarded) and weak people (who are punished).

On the left, we often think people are not voting their interests. What we might be failing to understand is that they don't care about their economic interests as much as in morality -- power morality, which promises them that they might be upper-class gods, too, if they are ever blessed to rise, but even if they are never gods, at least divinity exists. (Incidentally, I first started thinking about this kind of situation by talking with Stalin-defending socialists, but the mental framework seems to transfer quite well.)