A few 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 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 far a more left-leaning, big-government approach to health care than anything the Freedom Caucus opposed in this legislation.
Will the Freedom Caucus learn from its mistake? The group has already lost one member, Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, who quit over the health bill debacle, declaring, “Saying no is easy, leading is hard, but that is what we were elected to do. Leaving this caucus will allow me to be a more effective Member of Congress and advocate for the people of Texas. It is time to lead.”
Poe is right. 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. The goal is not to support the most conservative legislation; it is - to paraphrase William F. Buckley’s famous rule - to support the most conservativeviablelegislation that can win.
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.
Marc A. Thiessen is a Washington Post columnist.