Last Friday, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) joined two other “Republican” senators in tanking Obamacare repeal efforts. Prior to that, Donald Trump had huffed and puffed about Murkowski’s earlier defections:
Senator @lisamurkowski of the Great State of Alaska really let the Republicans, and our country, down yesterday. Too bad!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2017
His Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, called Murkowski to threaten her with the scuttling of federal programs in Alaska.
Murkowski responded by giving Trump and his boy the finger. She trumpeted her status as a maverick to her local press. And she shut down hearings for several of Trump’s sub-cabinet appointments at Interior.
She gets to do that because she chairs the Senate’s Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which oversees the Interior Department.
So by yesterday, Zinke was begging for a kiss-&-make-up photo op:
— Secretary Ryan Zinke (@SecretaryZinke) August 3, 2017
Skeptics might think that Trump siccing his Cabinet’s biggest sycophant on Murkowski, only to send him back a week later to suck down a brewski with Murkowski, was political ineptitude. Or they might think the whole thing was a charade, as I’ve suggested previously. They might even wonder whether Trump was ever serious about repealing Obamacare in the first place, particularly given his long-standing support of socialized medicine.
What is unarguable, however, is the enormous power a Senate committee chairman wields – a power that, at times, can bring an administration to heel. Which raises the question of why Murkowski still has hers.
Actual Republicans in the Senate, like Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul, should ignore Murkowski’s bottle of Alaskan Big Mountain Pale Ale and think instead about a can of Coke – one containing a rat head. That’s what Grover Norquist urges Republicans to imagine when one of their elected officials supports tax increases. If you gulp down a Coke and find a rat head at the bottom of the can, it’ll probably be awhile before you buy your next Coke. The company’s brand will have been severely damaged in your eyes.
And so it is with voters who elect Republicans who later raise taxes. Voters lose faith in the party’s brand.
Norquist’s insightful reasoning applies with equal (or perhaps greater) force to the GOP’s broken promises to repeal Obamacare. Republicans, and Senate Republicans in particular, need to restore voter faith if they’re to have any chance of surviving a likely Democrat tsunami in November 2018.
That means convincing voters that last week’s Obamacare debacle was the result of a betrayal of the party by Murkowski rather than a betrayal of the voters by the party. They can’t primary her anytime soon because her next election isn’t until 2022. So at the very least, Republican senators must demonstrate that those who sabotage the party forfeit the biggest perk a party’s Senate caucus can bestow: a committee chairmanship. Caucus rules allow chairmen to be removed by a majority vote. There is precedent for seeking to do so when a senator betrays the voters, as Oregon’s Mark Hatfield did in 1995 by being the only Republican senator to vote against a balanced budget amendment.
Removing Murkowski as Chairman of Senate Energy and Natural Resources is critical in order for the party to accomplish the following:
- Reclaim the GOP Party Brand: Republican candidates and lawmakers promised their voters repeatedly for the past seven years that, given the chance, they’d throw Obamacare into the scrap heap of history. They’ve been as vocal about Obamacare (maybe even more so) as they’ve been about tax cuts. Voters are not amused by last week’s clownshow. According to yesterday’s polling, 60% of Republican voters, and 80% of Americans overall, disapprove of the party’s handling of health care. Those are rat-head-in-a-Coke-can numbers that need to be improved, now, before they harden.
- Promote Party Accountability: If you ever found a rat head in your Coke, at the very least you would expect Coke Inc. to demote the manager of the plant that distributed the can. Demoting the manager in Alaska who distributed tainted cans is the very least that the GOP customers have a right to expect from the party leadership.
- Promote Party Transparency: It’s also important to know which GOP senators truly opposed Obamacare. It was quite convenient that three GOP senators voted against the “skinny bill” last week, the bare minimum needed to kill it. Each of the other 49 could then vote for repealing Obamacare knowing the vote was meaningless other than as an opportunity for press releases and campaign ads highlighting their bravery. If Senate Republicans allow Murkowski to retain her chairmanship, voters can reasonably assume that she took one for the team.
- Deter Similar Catastrophes in the Future: If you’re Coke, Inc., and you’ve already let one rat-filled can out of your Alaska plant, you’d better not let it happen again. Demoting your Alaska plant manager would send a strong message to managers in other states about the costs of violating company policy. Republican senators will soon confront bills on taxes, immigration, energy – you name it. They cannot afford anymore debacles like last week’s failure on Obamacare. Stripping Murkowski of her chairmanship would send an important message to the other squishes in the caucus.
But wait – why pick on just Murkowski? Didn’t John McCain (R-AZ) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) vote against the Obamacare repeal as well? And don’t they both chair Senate committees? Yes and yes, but neither are good targets for demotion. McCain will turn 81 later this month and, absent a medical miracle, will not return to the Senate. Cancer treatment will remove McCain from his committee chairmanship. Having the caucus do so formally would be overkill. Collins isn’t a good target either because her vote was plausibly one of conscience. Collins was the only Republican who voted against repealing Obamacare in 2015 when Obama’s veto pen made that vote a risk-free endeavor.
Murkowski, on the other hand, has a long history of being a deceptive, abortion-loving turncoat. In 2010, Joe Miller, a true conservative, combat veteran, and graduate of West Point and Yale Law School, defeated Murkowski for the Republican nomination. Rather than accept the verdict of Alaska’s voters, Murkowski ran as a write-in candidate and narrowly defeated Miller in the general election. Republican senators rewarded Murkowski’s betrayal of Alaska Republicans by later making her a committee chair after they retook control of the Senate in November 2014.
And then, of course, there’s Murkowski’s lies about Obamacare. She defeated Miller in 2010 and again in 2016 in no small part by pledging to repeal it. Indeed, she voted to repeal it – in 2015, when Obama held a veto pen, when her vote didn’t have any effect other than to swindle Alaska voters.
If Republican senators are willing to continue rewarding someone like Murkowski with a committee chairmanship, then the party truly is a fraud. Every Republican senator or senate candidate, such as Luther Strange in Alabama or Matt Rosendale in Montana, should be asked whether they think Murkowski should remain a chairman.
It’s not clear that Trump and Zinke understand Norquist’s insight regarding party branding. Or that they’d care if they did. Or even that they’re Republicans in any meaningful sense.
But Trump and Zinke aren’t running for anything next year. Several Senate Republicans are, as well as all of their brethren in the House. They’re there because they promised to “drain the swamp” in general and repeal Obamacare in particular. If they’d like to retain their majorities, they must begin to reclaim their brand and clean out the rats in their party’s leadership, starting with Lisa Murkowski.