Op-ed: McConnell’s health care manipulations

Beware of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s lowballing. That’s good advice for the Democrats and others who are getting cocky about defeating a Republican replacement for Obamacare. Be very suspicious of stories appearing in the papers of record and TV network news that all say the same thing, which is that McConnell’s intentions to sell his partisans in the Senate on some variation of a plan are in deep doo-doo.


The consensus of all these stories is that too many moderates and right-wing immoderates in his party are irretrievably split into those who feel the evolving legislation leaves millions upon millions of sick and poor people unable to afford medical protection and those who apparently feel the plan should dump everybody but the rich or well.

But McConnell thrives in deep doo-doo when it comes to the messy process of deal-making. If the United States ever wants to get serious about negotiating with Vladimir Putin or any of those other troublesome world leaders, we’ll send Mitch McConnell, not some rank amateur like Donald Trump.

Trump really doesn’t comprehend how he’d been had in his meeting with the wily Putin after they did their first face-to-face in Hamburg. It’s easy to see why the Russian leader worked so hard to sway the U.S. election toward Donald Trump. He wanted someone in place he could handle with ease, and it was obvious after their encounter that President Trump is now in Russian President Putin’s sphere of influence. They glossed over a variety of issues that beg for clear action, not the least of which was the question of Russian manipulation in the U.S. campaign. Here is a simple readout of their conversation about it:

Trump: You did.

Putin: We didn’t.

Trump: Oh. OK.

A reminder: Special counsel Bob Mueller probably won’t gloss over the question. Neither might the congressional investigations as they plod along. But right now it is health care that is about to max out our focus. Not only is McConnell lulling his adversaries by bad-mouthing the chances for the Republicans to gut health care on their own, he’s also throwing out a worst-case scenario that would make his caucus members throw up.

If they fail, he’s saying the Republicans will have no alternative but to deal with the (gasp) Democrats. There would have to be bipartisan accommodation. This particular version was designed to require only 50 Senate votes, plus one; there are 52 GOP senators. But if they can’t get together on this plan, the parliamentary rules on any other form of legislation would seem to set up a filibuster. So the Democratic minority is suddenly empowered, as any alternative Obamacare replacement would require 60 votes and would in all likelihood be just an Obamacare revision — a slight one at that. Then the Republicans would have to explain to their voters why they were unable to “repeal and replace” like they constantly promised for so many years, even though they had a majority in Congress and a willing president in the White House. Actually, make that an anxious president, who would sure like to add to his meager list of accomplishments.

So take the dire scenario that Mitch McConnell is describing with a grain of salt. He’s a master poker player, the consummate dealer, and he’s already bluffed the opinion makers into believing he’s holding a poor hand. Of course, to torture this metaphor further, there is one wild card — the wild man himself, President Trump, who cannot be counted on to play with a full deck. One tweet from him and the whole McConnell house of cards collapses as the Trumpster says something that disgusts everyone and saps any momentum.

If, however, McConnell is able to play his normal stealth game, he has a chance of winning. He knows that, even though almost no one else does. Which is fine with him.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.


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