INDIANAPOLIS — BenefitsPRO Editor-in-Chief Paul Wilson joined Nicolle Wallace, a political analyst for MSNBC and top strategist for the Republican Party, and Bakari Sellers, an up-and-coming Democratic star and CNN pundit, in “Crossfire on Current Events and Today’s Divisive Political Landscape.”
The keynote at the annual BenefitsPRO Broker Expo tackled everything from the Affordable Care Act, its perceived “death spiral,” fake news, and what to look for in 2020. (Hint: Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti should start getting their teams together.)
When asked what today’s political climate looks like for them, Sellers was quick to respond.
“It’s a mess,” he said. “The White House has kept us in a perpetual state of confusion, and I’m not sure if that’s intentional or not.”
“It’s never intentional,” Wallace responded, chuckles peppering throughout the room. “In this moment, it’s more painful for me, because my party stands for something very different now.”
The two continued, discussing how we got here—with a president who wasn’t supposed to win and has been anything but conventional since he took office earlier this year.
“We are seeing some epic battles in Trump’s White House,” said Wallace. “He has this desire to dance with the ones who brung him—Steven Bannon, Kellyanne Conway—but on the other side, he has these generals, like Mattis, who have helped some Trump skeptics sleep at night.”
These two forces—the Trump aides who have caught flak for their PR woes and lack of experience and the more seasoned experts and advisors—are pitted against each other and as Wallace pointed out, Trump will have to decide who will ultimately and truly guide his tenure on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Democrats as the opposition party
“This seems unprecedented,” said Wilson. “It’s not just a feeling, it actually is,” said Sellers. He continued, saying never has there been a more inexperienced president. (That didn’t sit well with some audience members, who audibly disagreed.)
But Sellers went on, telling the audience Democrats are in a situation they haven’t been in for eight years—taking on the role of the opposition party. It’s not something they know how to do very well right now, he said, and they need to figure out what their future looks like in this regard.
“There is a lot of chaos, but a lot of that can be calmed down if you have a lead in the Republican Party like Paul Ryan who steps forward and leads,” he said.
To a certain degree, Wallace agreed, but with a simple, yet crucial, caveat.
“Paul Ryan was prepared and knew how to do his job under Hillary Clinton, but he wasn’t prepared for this,” she said. “He has no idea how to be Paul Ryan in a Trump administration. He will ultimately pay the price for the Republicans in the midterms over the health care debacle.”
Paul Ryan’s defeat
And how much did the American Health Care Act failure hurt Trump? Not much at all, actually. Wallace said Trump won’t have to pay a political price, because his supporters weren’t necessarily that offended by the ongoing health care debate, but Ryan’s supporters won’t be as forgiving.
“It’s the more conservative ideological ones that make up Paul Ryan’s base, and they are going to be angry they blew their chance to repeal Obamacare,” she added.
It seems that anger will reverberate for some time, considering Ryan’s recent admission that the ACA is the law of the land and will be for the foreseeable future. Or will it? Trump says repeal is still on the table.
“The White House OMB director was talking about how ACA repeal will be done before tax reform, but I think that’s aspirational,” Wallace said. “There is just not enough will for this among Trump’s base.”
So, despite Trump’s tweets, the ACA seems to be in place for the time being, and many Americans are starting to give the health care law more love than it had in the years it wasn’t on the chopping block.
“I will give credit to Trump for that,” Sellers said. “He made the ACA popular, which Obama couldn’t do. The AHCA only had an approval of 17 percent. That’s lower than the ACA ever was.”
“It’s hard for your first piece of legislation to take something away from people,” he continued. “Obama failed to communicate the ACA accomplishments, and you can see that now. I do think the ACA will be the law of the land because of insurance reimbursements for the 7 million people covered out-of-pocket by those insurers. Obama attempted to do that, but the Republicans said no way. Now they are saying it will be done.”
Spending political capital
With the missed opportunity that is repeal and replace, it’s time to face facts: The unpopular branding of the ACA made it hard to swallow for many Americans, but without something solid and sellable, Trump and his cohorts will most likely have to face a package of tweaks.
“If anyone tells you the ACA doesn’t need to be fixed, they are lying to you and themselves,” Sellers said.
Later in the keynote, an audience member wondered how much political capital Ryan expended on his now-defunct attempt at health care reform, and if he’d try to take on another endeavor soon, like Social Security.
“I think his bank of political capital is a lot lighter,” Wallace said.
“It’s probably in overdraft,” Sellers chimed in.
“But I don’t think he has a partner to help him do anything in Social Security,” Wallace said. “It’s not Trump’s impulse to take things away. I think he thinks he can make the pie bigger, because I don’t really think he wants reform.”
Had someone like Jeb Bush or even Hillary Clinton taken the White House, both Wallace and Sellers agreed, reforms would be on the docket. But as Sellers put it, “Paul Ryan is in the wrong era. He’s too wonky.”
Health insurance vs. health care costs
Another question from the audience (posed by former Broker of the Year winner David Contorno) brought up the question on many brokers’ minds. “Health insurance is expensive because health care is expensive. Why have both sides of the aisle been afraid to talk about it?”
“That was the goal of the ACA, and it missed the mark,” Sellers said simply. “Not enough people get it,” said Wallace.
It was then Sellers pushed back on the original question, saying, “I think your premise is wrong. I don’t think cost is the problem; access remains the No. 1 problem.” It was then the all-too-familiar point was made by the audience: “Part of access is affordability.”
That argument has been—and should be—made often. For Wallace, she says not enough people in the government know how to have this conversation, with one exception.
“Governors are more fluent because they live it,” she said. “[John] Kasich made one of the more impassioned pleas to the president to slow down on health care.”
The death spiral
Another audience member brought up the so-called death spiral the ACA seems to be succumbing to. “What does the ACA collapse mean, and could it actually happen?” he asked.
“The Aetna CEO is the one who said Obamacare was in a death spiral, and he said it when the government didn’t back his merger,” Sellers said.
(It should be mentioned Mark Bertollini denies the two are linked, but recently, Aetna did remove itself from an Iowa ACA marketplace for individual plans, the second major insurer to do so.)
Sellers disagreed the ACA is in a death spiral and said what will help stabilize it will be the subsidies to insurance companies that will act as reinforcement to keep them on board. “I think it will be stable,” he said.
Wallace agreed somewhat. “I think it will be bloated, but when it gets close to dying, they will fix it, but not until then.”
“It’s not how we repeal it,” Sellers said. “It’s how we fix it.”