Republicans opposed almost every policy initiative of the Obama Administration, forcing President Obama to rely on close to unanimous support from Congressional Democrats in his first two years, and since then on using his executive powers to advance his agenda. Journalists have shown that the Republicans’ Senate majority has confirmed fewer Obama judicial nominees in 2015-16 than Democrats did for President Bush in 2007-08. Technical fixes to the Affordable Care Act, of the sort Congresses routinely enacted for legislation, major and minor, passed during previous administrations, Republican and Democratic, have been blocked, creating confusion and hardship for those who depend on Obamacare for their insurance. Why such steadfast Republican opposition?
During Obama’s first term, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell explained that his overriding goal was to make Obama a one-term president. Certainly, the strategy has been effective as a way of creating and extending the Republicans’ Congressional majorities. Obstructionism helped the Republicans take the House, as well as many state legislatures that would redraw district lines, in 2010; held Democratic gains to almost zero when Obama was reelected in 2012; and then gave the Republicans the Senate, and their largest House majority since the 1920s, in 2014.
Republican obstructionism certainly can be understood as the result of a rational political strategy that has paid big dividends for the Republicans over the past eight years. Even if this strategy, and the open disrespect and hostility that many Republicans show to the elected president, make it hard for the GOP to win back the presidency, most Republican politicians never will run for president. For those who plan and expect to spend their political careers in state legislatures or Congress, the McConnell strategy makes sense.
Yet it is hard to miss the very thinly veiled racism that animates more than a few GOP officeholders. The question we need to address as social scientists seeking to understand US politics is whether racism has deepened Republican obstructionism.
Of course, if Hillary Clinton is elected president, the GOP will face a white president. If they are more conciliatory toward her that would be strong evidence that racism was a factor in the Republican strategy toward Obama.
I expect we will get a test of that very early in a Clinton Administration. Twenty-two states, all of which have Republican governors, have declined to expand Medicare, and in so doing have given up billions of dollars of Federal money. The Federal government assumed 100% of the costs of covering additional Medicaid recipients, with the percentage dropping to 95% in 2017, and then 90% in 2020, where it is slated to remain in perpetuity.
Who has lost out because of this state-level Republican refusal? Fifteen million poor Americans don’t have Medicaid coverage that the Federal government would pay for if those states opted-in. But doctors and hospitals in those states also are paying a price. They are losing 15 million potential customers, and on top of that hospitals are required under other Federal laws to give free emergency care to the uninsured.
So far, the medical industry has not pressed Republican governors and legislators too hard to accept the Obamacare Medicaid expansion. However, this industry and its lobbyists are unlikely to quietly go along with absorbing these financial losses for another four years in the hopes that undermining and limiting Obamacare somehow will help a Republican defeat President Clinton in 2020.
I predict that President Clinton will try to get a quick bipartisan victory by offering Republicans a deal on Obamacare early in her presidency. She will propose cosmetic changes to Obamacare that would allow GOP governors and legislators to claim that their resistance produced a better deal for their states. Those states then will sign on to a Medicaid expansion.
Of course, the Obama Administration made a similar offer to states, and a few, like Indiana under Governor Mike Pence, took that deal. Most did not. The political considerations for Republicans will not have changed. They will be under the same pressure from their medical industry contributors to make a deal with the Clinton Administration. However, under Obama they were pressured by the racist fraction of their electoral base to never cooperate with a black president. And we should not discount that some Republican politicians resisted compromise because of their own racist distaste for the black president.
If Republicans continue to refuse compromise over Medicaid expansion after Obama leaves office, then their obstructionism can be explained, now and in the future, as a product of their political judgment that they have so much to gain from obstructing any Democratic president that it is worth disappointing contributors from the single largest industry in the nation. However, if they take the deal President Clinton almost certainly will offer, then we will have the results of a natural experiment. The pressure from medical industry contributors was constant over two Administrations, the value of Medicaid expansion to their poorer constituents remained constant, and the willingness of the Administration to offer a face-saving deal remained constant. All that will have changed in 2017 is the color of the President’s skin and her gender. But if the Republicans cooperate with a white woman in ways they refused to do with a black man then we will know how much racism motivated Republican opposition to President Obama and Obamacare.