Last week, House Republicans passed a new version of the American Health Care Act, moving one step closer to fulfilling their explicit promise to repeal and replace Obamacare and their tacit promise to do something really awful to poor people. It probably won't work. The new AHCA was rushed to the House floor before most members had time to read it. Republicans in the Senate have signaled that they intend to scrap the bill and start over. But it remains the most significant piece of legislation before Congress, and its combination of deregulation for the insurance industry and tax cuts for the wealthy offers a frightening glimpse of Republican priorities in health-care reform.
Meanwhile, in Montana, Greg Gianforte had no opinion. "Greg needs to know all the facts, because it's important to know exactly what's in the bill before he votes on it," a spokesman told reporters, declining to answer questions about whether Gianforte would have voted for his party's bill.
It was a reasonable response, even if it seemed a little weaselly. Probably, no one in Washington should have an opinion on the bill, since it was so poorly presented. But on the same day that Gianforte declined to say anything about the AHCA to the press, he praised it in a conference call with lobbyists. Noting that the Montana special election would have "national significance," he said it "sounds like we just passed a health care thing, which I'm thankful for. [It] sounds like we're starting to repeal and replace."
I guess Gianforte would have voted for the AHCA after all. This isn't necessarily an instance of him saying one thing in public and another in private, since he declined to say anything to the public at all. But it's telling that his campaign thought he could get away with a no-comment to reporters, when apparently he felt he owed lobbyists an answer.
Maybe it was easier to guess what the lobbyists wanted to hear. While the Republican plan guts Obamacare's subsidies for low-income Americans buying insurance on state exchanges, it preserves them for insurance companies. It also allows insurers to charge much higher premiums for the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions. You would be hard-pressed to convince a roomful of voters that the problem with American health care is that old, sick people are ripping off insurance companies. But if you were speaking to a group of lobbyists, you might have a better shot.
The fact that Gianforte felt obliged to shoot straight with lobbyists while he told the press to go pound sand tells us who wields consequences in his daily life. He may be out hunting computers and the occasional underage elk on the weekends, but his main business is with his party and the interests that fund it. Now that he is running for national office, K Street means more to his campaign than the Montana press does. He can get testy with Sally Mauk and stonewall the rest of us, but put him on the phone with some GOP bagmen, and he's just thankful to be a part of it all.
Here's another question Gianforte doesn't have to answer: Why? With assets north of $100 million and a secure, if newly built, platform for his views, he needs donors and lobbyists less than almost any politician in Montana. When I spoke to him before his campaign for governor, he seemed genuinely excited by the theories of classic American conservatism. Since November, though, he's rebranded himself as a Trump Republican—part of an odious band of former conservatives who seem to have decided that winning is the only political principle worth standing up for.
I submit that Gianforte has won already. He's financially secure. He's succeeded in his career. His children are grown. And he's ventured into state politics with an essentially free hand. He doesn't need anyone else's money, and he's new enough that he doesn't owe too many favors. He is operating with a freedom most candidates can only imagine, yet he is conducting his campaign as though he depended on the national party for his political life.
I don't doubt that the Republican Party can help Gianforte, but he doesn't need it. He needs us. He can't get on the Trump train until the voters of Montana punch his ticket. It's a risk to tell us what he thinks about controversial issues, but it's a risk we will reward if we start thinking we can rely on him to take it. Anyone in the country could do what he did last week. With time running out before the election, he should think about what he can do to make himself irreplaceable.
Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and how one might permanently seal a roomful of lobbyists at combatblog.net.