GOP faces tough battle to become 'party of health care'

Republicans face an uphill battle in their bid to fulfill President TrumpDonald John TrumpPompeo changes staff for Russia meeting after concerns raised about top negotiator's ties: report House unravels with rise of 'Les Enfants Terrible' Ben Carson: Trump is not a racist and his comments were not racist MORE's prophecy that the GOP will become "the party of health care."

The presidential directive, handed down in a tweet on Tuesday, came at an inopportune time for Republicans, less than a day after the Trump administration called for the courts to invalidate the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in its entirety.

Taken together, that announcement and Trump’s ambitious call to resurface a campaign promise that has eluded Republicans for years underscores the political peril facing the GOP in 2020, as well as the long road the party faces if it hopes to, in fact, become “the party of health care.”

“People already believe that Republicans have the wrong approach to health care,” Doug Thornell, a longtime Democratic strategist and adviser, said. “When the White House makes the kind of announcement it just did, it reinforces that.”

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For Democrats, the GOP’s posture on health care has already proven to be one of their most incisive lines of attack, helping them win 40 House seats in the 2018 midterm elections.

With 2020 fast approaching, Democrats are eager to revive the issue.

“I would love it if the Republicans want to make this campaign about health care,” Thornell said. “That would be fantastic. I think any Democrat would love to have that debate.”

By and large, available polling data shows Democrats with an edge in the health care debate.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released earlier this month found that 56 percent of respondents see Democratic positions on health care as being “in the mainstream,” compared to only 38 percent who said the same of the Republican Party’s views on the issue.

A Harvard CAPS/Harris poll released exclusively to The Hill this week brought similarly good news for Democrats.

Fifty-eight percent of respondents in that survey said they trust the Democratic Party more to handle health care. Meanwhile, 48 percent said they trust Republicans on the matter.

The polls are reflective of a larger trend in public opinion.

Democrats have largely seen support for their handling of health care tick upwards in recent years, available polling data shows. For Republicans, the numbers have either remained stagnant or trended downwards.

Despite those trends, Republicans have sought to turn the tables in recent months as some in the Democratic Party, including several presidential hopefuls, lurch to the left on health care and embrace a single-payer, Medicare for All approach.

That approach, favored by the party’s progressive and activist base, has received mixed receptions among the broader electorate.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday found 45 percent of Americans opposing Medicare for All and 43 percent backing the proposal.

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“That’s the rhetoric that really scares a lot of voters – I would think a lot of independent voters, a lot of suburban voters, voters that Dems did really well with last time,” Doug Heye, a Republican strategist, said.

While Republicans had hoped to seize on public unease with such sweeping reforms, Heye said that the Trump administration’s legal shift on the ACA could complicate that effort by putting the onus on Republicans to stake out their own position on health care.

“It’s why the announcement from the White House was surprising,” said Heye, who also served as an aide to former House Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorGOP faces tough battle to become 'party of health care' 737 crisis tests Boeing's clout in Washington House Republicans find silver lining in minority MORE (R-Va.). “If your opponent is running off a cliff, it’s best to stay out of their way.”

It also forces the party to wrestle with a frustrating reality for many of its members: After multiple failed attempts to repeal the ACA, Republicans are still largely divided on exactly how to replace former President Obama’s signature health care law, which has seen its favorability tick upwards in recent years.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday found that 55 percent of Americans support improving the country’s current health care system, rather than replacing it entirely.

If Republicans ultimately decide to take another crack at replacing the ACA, it’s unclear where such a plan will originate.

Marc Short, a former White House aide who is now Vice President Pence’s chief of staff, said on CNN Wednesday that Trump will submit a plan to Congress sometime “this year.”

But Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsLawmakers request documents on DC councilman ethics investigation House Republicans dismissive of Paul Ryan's take on Trump The 27 Republicans who voted with Democrats to block Trump from taking military action against Iran MORE (R-N.C.), the chair of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, said on Thursday that any plan to replace the ACA would be in collaboration with congressional Republicans.

“It’s my impression there will be a plan the president and White House endorses, but I think it will be a collaborative effort between House and Senate Republicans,” Meadows said.

Heye said that if Trump wants to define the Republican Party with a robust health care agenda, it will have to be the White House —rather than GOP lawmakers — that takes the lead.

“We were never able to agree on a white paper — and that’s when we had the [House] majority,” Heye said. “If we weren’t able to do that on our own, the only way that this gets done is if the White House goes all in and long term.”

“Is the White House prepared to do that? We haven’t really seen a whole lot of other examples of where they have.”