It’s not only the American people who dodged a bullet Friday when the American Health Care Act failed to get a vote in the Republican-led House; the GOP, despite the embarrassment of the political defeat of their long-term goal of undoing Obamacare, probably also came out better than if they had succeeded. That’s because their replacement for Obamacare was such a horrid piece of legislation — promising to wreak havoc with the lives of millions of Americans including many of their own voters — that it would likely have extracted a huge political cost over time if actually implemented.
As a political matter, the downside for Democrats is that they will continue to own a healthcare policy that many Americans currently dislike. With Trump taking the lead, Republicans are already blaming the Democrats both for the failure to endorse the GOP replacement bill, and for the ongoing ills of the current healthcare system.
Here’s what progressives have to remember: The voters or would-be voters we are most likely to pull into our coalition in order to take back our government are low-information voters.
For Trump, this just might work. Here’s what progressives have to remember: The voters or would-be voters we are most likely to pull into our coalition in order to take back our government are low-information voters. They may have grudgingly voted for Trump after having previously backed Democrats, or they may not have voted at all because they were too unenthused or distrustful to come out and back Hillary. Either way, those who don’t appreciate the importance of voting, or of voting for the sane, smart and serious candidate over the dangerous, know-nothing pussy-grabber, are also the folks most susceptible to the simplistic narrative already being peddled that it was the Democrats who scuttled their chances of getting or keeping access to affordable, quality healthcare, and that somehow Republicans are the ones who will ensure they have healthcare, jobs and a quality school for their kids to attend.
We should welcome either type of American — the ambivalent Trump voter or the non-voter — into our coalition. We don’t have to befriend these people or agree with them on everything. We just need them to vote with us, and now is no time to impose a purity test.
But we must recognize exactly what’s involved in winning them over. Low-information voters tend to skew young, unmarried, and lower-income. In other words, they are people whose interests are best served by Democrats, the party that believes in a government that works for the people, including using a progressive tax system to ensure affordable healthcare, quality schools and infrastructure that creates good jobs and allows people to get to them. Yet many of these people don’t even know which party is in charge of Congress, let alone follow the intricacies of healthcare policy.
Progressives must not rest on our laurels as we bask in the glow of GOP legislative defeat. We must take every opportunity to advance a message that should be obvious but will not be: that Republicans are the party of the one percent who just tried to yank away healthcare for 24 million people and throw the savings to their one-percenter donor base — a terrifying power grab done in broad daylight that nevertheless will not be seen by millions for what it was — unless we make it impossible to ignore.
Take a page, for instance, from the wildly successful LGBT movement over the past two decades.
We must be far more proactive than we have been in the past in advancing this message, as the left has historically done a poor job selling its policies — even when they are better for more people. Take a page, for instance, from the wildly successful LGBT movement over the past two decades.
In 2000, progressives lost the White House in a bitterly contested election, seeming to freeze the prospects for federal progress on LGBT equality. But instead of wringing their hands or relying solely on high-decibel street protests, LGBT advocates redoubled their efforts to advance the message that equality for LGBT people was a common American value that took nothing from anyone but helped a disfavored group to thrive. Using a relentless, long-term messaging strategy, they took aim at bans on same-sex relationships, LGBT access to military service, the right to parent and to marry the person we loved. They were willing to get dirty by working within a conventional political system some would have preferred to avoid altogether, to reach across the aisle, to meet people where they were, and even to sit at the table with homophobes they thought they could reach. They fought not only in courts and in legislatures but in the court of public opinion. None of this required compromising their goals; it just required learning to talk about them effectively, and doing so non-stop.
The lesson is that message matters. Progressives who believe, rightly, that the GOP is an arm of “dark money,” big oil and corporate interests laboring, in their greed, to cut taxes and regulation on the backs of the rest of us, must wage a long-term information campaign that tells the stories of those most vulnerable to the inhumane policies the current Republican party wants to impose on the country.
So never let Americans forget: The GOP, pursuing its ideological commitment to ensuring that the government does as little as possible for ordinary people, just tried to ram through a law that would have delivered a quarter-billion dollar tax cut almost exclusively to those making over $200,000, and terminated health coverage for 24 million regular Americans — while sending premiums for older and poorer people skyrocketing by up to 750 percent — in order to pay for this windfall to its fat-cat donor base. If this is what a populist shake-up of the establishment looks like, no thanks.
Nathaniel is an author, historian, commentator, and LGBTQ strategist. A frequent contributor to Slate, his new book, Awakening: How Gays and Lesbians Brought Marriage Equality to America, will be published by Harvard University Press on April 24. He is currently the director of Columbia Law School’s What We Know Project, a research initiative that collects scholarship on LGBTQ public policy. Learn more at his website.