Last week, the Department of Justice announced it will no longer defend, in court, a key provision of the Affordable Care Act — namely, the guarantee of coverage for those with preexisting conditions.
From a legal perspective, this is an unprecedented move. The Justice Department has long upheld the validity of laws that are on the books, even if the department’s political leadership — or the president — disagrees with them.
From a policy perspective, considering the GOP’s jihad against President Obama’s signature domestic legislation, the move isn’t all that surprising.
But from a political perspective it’s breathtakingly dumb. For what appears to be largely ideological reasons, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Justice Department have given Democrats a political gift — a reminder that Republicans remain intent on repealing Obamacare and taking health care away from millions of Americans.
Indeed, what is perhaps most striking about the decision is that the Justice Department is not challenging any other aspect of the law, but instead is focusing on preexisting conditions, which also is the law’s most consistently popular provision. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll done in May, not only do 8 in 10 Democrats support that part of Obamacare, so too do nearly 6 in 10 Republicans.
For months, public opinion polling has shown that health care is the number one issue heading into the midterm elections — and, by large margins, voters see Democrats as being far better on the issue than Republicans. Indeed a CNN poll from March gave Democrats a 20-point advantage on the issue — the largest edge for the party on any policy matter.
After the repeal debacle of last year, it’s hard to understand why Republicans would want to go back to this poisonous well once again.
Yet, DOJ’s move comes on the heels of another unhelpful political decision from the White House — the launching of a trade war against key US allies, which will almost certainly have a negative effect on the economy and minimize the already meager gain that most voters will get from the GOP tax cut. The tariffs may have a particularly harsh impact among those in agricultural and manufacturing, two industries where support for Trump is strong.
When you throw in Trump’s increasingly controversial immigration policies, in particular the horrific separation of children from parents at the border, the president is handing congressional Republicans one stick of political dynamite after another. A White House with even a semblance of a political operation would be looking for ways to minimize the political exposure of Republicans. Trump is going in the opposite direction.
The easiest explanation for all this is that Trump doesn’t understand why these policy choices might be a political problem. For the president, everything in politics is about pacifying and cultivating his far-right base. They hate Obamacare . . . so try to destroy it. Nothing gets them more fired up than bashing immigrants . . . so enact cruel and barbaric policies against immigrants. They love it at Trump rallies when he talks about America First . . . so publicly push around other countries, including close allies. Then when all else fails, play the culture war card by getting in public spats with (predominately black) football players over the national anthem.
This is the Trump playbook that we’ve seen for the past nearly three years and it’s not about to change.
The problem, however, is that for Republicans who have to appeal to voters outside the conservative base, it makes their job that much harder. It forces them to defend unpopular policies that expose the party’s political vulnerabilities. But if they stick with the president — as many have done — in order to shore up their political base, they end up alienating swing voters. To a disproportionate extent, Republican officeholders are being forced to run on Trump’s political agenda, not the one that is most beneficial to them.
It’s one of the reasons why so many of them didn’t choose to run for reelection this year – and it’s also the reason why many of them will probably lose in November.
Many who are running have made the political calculation that they are better off remaining loyal to Trump than trying to distance themselves from him. They don’t want to alienate the president’s supporters or the president himself, who has shown over and over again that he’s not the kind of guy to look the other way at personal slights for the greater good of the party.
For the most part, this was probably the least worst political option for Republicans, particularly in the face of potential primary challenges from far-right candidates.
Indeed, right on cue, Tuesday afternoon Trump launched a Twitter tirade against Representative Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who has been critical of the president. That evening Sanford was defeated in a GOP primary in his bid for reelection.
But as we get close to Election Day we’re seeing the tangible downsides of that strategy. From health care to trade and immigration, Trump is putting significant political obstacles in the way of his own Republican allies. He will likely continue on this path between now and November, because, in the end, he simply doesn’t care. For Trump, everything is about him: his whims, his political instincts, his need for to push back at every perceived slight. Up to now, Republican officeholders have, by and large, been able to ride the tiger and survive. But as we get closer to Election Day, it’s going to become that much harder for them to survive with Trump as the face of their party.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.