It has been an open secret in Washington, D.C., that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has made it a goal, since day one of his tenure as speaker of the House, to break the power of the Freedom Caucus. Ryan perceived — fairly or not — that the Freedom Caucus was the cause of former Speaker of the House John Boehner’s many woes, and determined to build a House majority that could pass bills without any Freedom Caucus support.
For better or worse, Ryan’s plan makes good tactical sense, because few leaders want to face pressure from both flanks, and Ryan knows that without liberals and moderates, Republicans cannot achieve a majority.
To that end, Ryan has consistently sought to protect his right flank by removing troublemaking conservatives wherever he has the opportunity, including during primary challenges, where Ryan has quietly worked behind the scenes to ensure that Chamber of Commerce-friendly Republicans succeed wherever possible against their more conservative opponents. Bucking GOP leadership tradition, Ryan has refused to intervene on behalf of conservatives even when the more conservative option is an incumbent (as former Kansas GOP Rep. Tim Huelskamp can tell you).
Against this backdrop, most of Ryan’s blatantly dishonest post-AHCA finger-pointing begins to make sense. Ryan would have you believe that the Freedom Caucus was solely responsible for the scuttling of his deeply unpopular pet project to “repeal” Obamacare. The media, which are largely ignorant of the internal dynamics of the House GOP caucus because they are largely staffed by ex-Democrat Hill staffers, have been happy to carry Ryan’s water in this regard — either because they, too, dislike the Freedom Caucus or because they are too lazy to dig even an inch below the surface and learn the truth.
Of course, the Freedom Caucus might well wish to claim the AHCA’s defeat as a net positive since Americans opposed its passage by a whopping margin of 56 percent. However, regardless of the particulars of the act, Ryan now has a convenient scapegoat he can blame for the party’s failure to pass a bill that at least nominally replaced Obamacare — both with Chamber of Commerce-types who supported AHCA-style reform and, more significantly, with President Donald Trump (who looks increasingly likely to enter the fray in Republican House primaries in 2018). And with the latter target, there is evidence that his campaign is working, since Trump has begun grousing aloud about Freedom Caucus members on his Twitter account.
The facts, however, tell a very different story. Even though liberals and moderates in the House GOP caucus were quieter during the AHCA debate, they were no less opposed to the bill. The only difference is that Ryan opted not to place them in a difficult position — an opportunity Freedom Caucus members were not afforded.
It is definitely true that many Freedom Caucus members expressed deep reservations about the AHCA and attempted to extract concessions from both Ryan and the White House to make it a more conservative bill. The main sticking point of contention was the Freedom Caucus’ insistence on removing the odious “essential health benefit” mandate, which many experts agree is one of the main reasons Obamacare has caused dramatic spikes in health insurance premiums. However, throughout the process, Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) consistently praised Trump’s work on the bill and his openness to negotiation with the Freedom Caucus.
However, while most of the headlines focused on Freedom Caucus opposition to the bill, moderate opposition to the bill was equally trenchant and based on the media’s deceptive narrative that 24 million Americans would “lose coverage” (an interesting job of framing the free decisions of Americans to not purchase coverage in the absence of a legal mandate to do so).
The first Republican in the House to flatly declare that she would not vote for the bill was Florida moderate Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a member of the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership. Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), one of the most liberal Republicans in Congress and co-chair of the liberal Republican “Tuesday Group” likewise flatly stated that he and many of his moderate colleagues would be voting against the bill, again because of the fictitious “loss of coverage” issue. According to reports, Ryan unsuccessfully literally begged Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) to vote for the bill, and Young has long been considered one of the most liberal, pork-loving Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Never did you hear a peep about any of this from Paul Ryan during any of his public comments about the bill, either before or after its ignominious withdrawal from the House calendar.
Throughout the negotiation process, Freedom Caucus members like Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) complained that leadership was hiding the fact that there were more “no” votes against the AHCA among moderate Republicans than among Freedom Caucus members.
Ryan’s decision to pull the bill, rather than submit it to a vote, provides nearly conclusive proof that Gohmert was right. After all, Trump desperately wanted a vote and told Ryan as much. Trump wanted members of the House on record as to where they stood so that those who scuttled the bill would have to explain it to the voters. At a last-minute White House meeting, Ryan reportedly begged Trump to allow him to quietly pull the bill from the floor rather than submit it to a vote which might be politically damaging to some of his members.
Well, who was Ryan trying to protect? Certainly not the Freedom Caucus. Ryan hammered home the point during his news conference that he didn’t have the votes thanks to the Freedom Caucus bloc. No other votes were mentioned. Ryan was explicit that the Freedom Caucus were “no” votes, so he clearly had no interest in protecting the secrecy of their votes.
The only remaining plausible explanation was that he wanted to protect his liberal/moderate caucus members from going on the record either way, knowing full well that many of them would also vote “no” if the vote on the deeply unpopular bill was called. There is no other explanation that even makes sense. If the Freedom Caucus planned to vote “no” but the rest of the caucus wanted to vote “yes,” he would have just called the vote and put the Freedom Caucus on record, since he immediately went out on TV and put the Freedom Caucus on record with the media anyway.
Now, in Ryan’s mind, he has a scapegoat for the GOP’s failure to pass a “repeal” bill, and if he can hoodwink Trump (who is popular in the deeply conservative districts the Freedom Caucus represents) into supporting primary challenges from docile Chamber of Commerce-types against Freedom Caucus members, then it’s a win-win, as far as he is concerned. And it appears, at the very least, that he has succeeded in convincing the media and the president that House conservatives are to blame.
In other words, House conservatives were not given a choice — they could either publicly support an unpopular bill or publicly repudiate the wishes a president who is popular with their voting base. Moderates and liberals, on the other hand, were let off scot-free.
Meanwhile, liberals — who were never going to vote for the bill regardless of what changes were made — were not even forced to go on the record either supporting an unpopular bill or opposing their party’s president. That’s a pretty sweet arrangement, if you can get it. Which, if the speaker of the House is on your side, you can.