Trump Impeachment Buzz Has A Silver Lining For Republicans

by Jon Hecht
Mark Wilson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The past week has been among the more tumultuous in recent U.S. political history. In the wake of the president firing FBI Director James Comey last week, there have been a number of bombshell revelations. It was reported this week that Trump effectively asked Comey to lay off the investigation of Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser, that his administration had been aware that Flynn was under FBI investigation when they hired him, that the president gave code-word classified intelligence information to Russian diplomats, and that a special counsel had been appointed to investigate all of this. I'd still say that the week of April 12, 1861, when Southern forces attacked Fort Sumter, Abraham Lincoln declared the need to raise a militia to combat insurrection, and Virginia became the eighth state to secede from the Union, was probably more bonkers. But, we also didn't have Twitter then.

It hasn't been fun for Republicans in Congress. None of these people ran for office on the platform of allegedly flipping off reporters in the halls of Congress when asked about Trump's scandals (Rep. Darrell Issa denies the claim that he did so). And it's not great for their legislative agenda if the entire focus of Washington, D.C. is zeroed in on investigation leaks and questions about improper contacts with foreign powers.

Or... is it?

Because while it's hard, even in the world of internet hot takes, to argue that a president under investigation by a special counsel is good for his party in Congress, there is a possible silver lining for Republicans: Trump's crazy, histrionic saga with the Justice Department and intelligence services is distracting attention from the Republican Party's deeply unpopular legislative agenda.

If you look at long-term polling averages for Trump's favorability (which I do, with a frequency that can't be good for my health), you can see that for the most parts, the biggest shift in public opinion come not from any of the scandals now tracking mud through the White House (though those are currently hurting it as well) but in mid-March from the battle over the GOP's stunningly unpopular health care bill.

When members of Congress have met with their constituents at town hall meetings across the country, the clarion calls of the angry voter have been focused on health care far more than Russia or Comey. To quote Trump's own victorious campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, "There's a difference to voters between what offends you and what affects you." And while the tornado hits Washington, for voters around the rest of the country, their own life or death usually matters more.

On Thursday, the Los Angeles Times published an extensive look at the state of Obamacare, with insurers and states explicitly blaming the Trump administration for mismanagement of the health care marketplaces that will lead to millions of Americans paying significantly more for health insurance. Under normal circumstances, news like this would be a bomb thrown into Washington, affecting the fight over the Affordable Care Act's repeal as both sides tried to spin the news to help their side (either by saying that Trump is making health care worse for Americans, or by saying that Obamacare is a failure). But instead, the group of Republican senators charged with devising a health care reform bill that can pass are doing so in near-anonymity, while spotlights remained focused on a special prosecutor.

Ty Wright/Getty Images News/Getty Images

There's an old adage about government: "Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made." In health care, where even the best policy involves painful trade-offs between costs and access, regulation and choice, that may be truer than for any other subject. It was certainly the rationale Paul Ryan seemed to abide by when he drafted the initial version of the Republican health plan in closed rooms where not even other Republicans in Congress, let alone voters or interest groups, could see it. And as all the firepower of the country's finest journalistic enterprise train their sights on the lava erupting from the White House, it might actually help Senate Republicans to draft their policy, likely featuring dozens of compromises that will enrage numerous stakeholders, out of those sights.