Columns, Opinions

Colby ’20: Learning from the plight of Republicans

Staff Columnist
Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Last Thursday Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-WI, made the imprudent decision to travel up to Providence, Rhode Island for a meeting with a local nonprofit, Year Up. Unsurprisingly, he was met with hundreds of protesters chanting “Coward!” These demonstrators were energized by various issues ranging from Ryan’s support of President Trump to Congress’ impending repeal of Obamacare. Ryan has championed dismantling Obamacare, telling constituents to expect repeal and replacement by March or April. It is now March and just four days after his visit to Providence, the first real replacement bill for Obamacare was introduced Monday. Was this the day these protesters were dreading, the day dreams of more equitable healthcare finally fell apart? Not really. But Democrats would do well to learn from the experience of Republicans — who were driven to the right by populist backlash during the Obama years — to ensure that their party does not suffer the same fate at the hands of ultra-liberal partisans.

It is already clear that House Republicans’ Obamacare replacement, called the American Health Care Act, is far from a sweeping success and may already be dead in the water. Ryan has been assigned the near impossible task of securing majority support from the various factions of the Republican Party. To make matters worse, Republican groups like the Tea Party Patriots, Heritage Foundation and House Libertarians have already come out against the American Health Care Act for not going far enough, effectively destroying the bill’s chances in the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, four Republican Senators — Sen. Rob Portman, R-OH, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-AK, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-WV, and Sen. Cory Gardner. R-CO — all have come out against the American Health Care Act’s cuts to Medicaid, also preventing its passage in the Senate. Ultimately, what damned this bill is not Republican incompetence but rifts within the party. With Democrats well-positioned to retake seats in the coming midterm elections, organizers like those protesting in Providence must get to work now to prevent a Democratic majority from facing the same fate.

The backlash to Trump’s presidency and Republican leadership has been visceral. In Rhode Island alone, protests have become regular occurrences, with two large anti-Trump protests and a student walk out happening in the past couple of weeks. It is still unclear whether this wave of progressive energy really is a durable political movement or a reactionary movement that will eventually fade away. Still, protests like those against Ryan’s visit suggest that liberal activism could become a sustained force in American politics.

If backlash against Trump really is maintained, it will be hard to ignore the parallels between the rise of the power of the divisive Tea Party and the grassroots anti-Trump movements gaining steam now. The Tea Party emerged out of former President Barack Obama’s election, united by clear anti-Obama messages and hardcore conservatism. The movement maintained salience with effective organizing and voter mobilization, leading to the election of far-right representatives and the emergence of the Freedom Caucus — a coalition of Tea Party Republicans — on Capitol Hill.

The rise of anti-Trump protests have a similar history, and it is not fanciful to imagine that Democrats will nominate far-left progressives during the midterm elections. As the Democratic platform moves further left, seeing far-left progressive candidates take office will become increasingly normal. Whether this is a positive or negative trend remains to be seen. But it is important for Democrats to make sure that extreme progressives don’t hijack the party like the Freedom Caucus has hijacked the Republican Party. The Freedom Caucus is openly sympathetic with the values of the Tea Party, and the 29 members of the caucus have actively opposed the broader Republican Party’s agenda. Considering just 22 Republican defections in the House would sink any replacement plan — assuming Democrats don’t cross party lines — the Tea Party and Freedom Caucus essentially control the Republican Party.

An ultra-progressive caucus within the House seems like a dream to many progressive Democrats, but it is worth remembering that such a caucus could have prevented the passage of Obamacare on the grounds that it didn’t do enough. When Obamacare was first introduced in 2009, the option of single payer healthcare — a long-standing progressive dream — was sidelined. Progressive voices calling for a government-run healthcare system were shouted down. Had Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-VT, and a large coalition of progressive Democrats maintained that single payer insurance reform was the only way to garner their votes, federal health insurance reform would not have been implemented.

Assuming Republicans will eventually find success in their larger effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, Democrats should strive to maintain party unity as activists and protests become increasingly progressive. While Rhode Island’s Obamacare-sanctioned health insurance exchanges remain competitive and well-functioning compared to the rest of the country, one-third of American counties have only one insurer in what are supposed to be robustly competitive exchanges. Obamacare was not perfect, and if Democrats regain control of Congress and the presidency, they will need to rehash the healthcare debate once again. Having the same sorts of internal divisions that hamstrung their Republican counterparts will only make such considerations even more difficult.

Owen Colby ’20 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to