Today’s Trumpcare debacle is testing the limits of Donald’s fanboys.
Don’t be fooled by the Trump media’s “But it’s not his faullllllt” whine. Donald Trump and Paul Ryan were partners in the most painful political dance DC has seen in a very long time. There’s plenty of blame to go around, but Trumpcare was as branded with the Donald’s name as his steaks or his vodka the moment Ryan made its passage contingent on Trump’s salesmanship. Trump owns it, and its failure is his failure.
Ryan took a terrible, horrible, no-good trainwreck of a bill guaranteed to alternately terrify, repel or disappoint various aspects of the American political spectrum and counted on Trump to unify a fractious GOP, by doing what the (alleged) business titan alleges he does: close the big deal. Trump couldn’t, and despite a frenzy of meetings and a blustery, bogus deadline, the bill died under its own weight.
Trump’s defenders are in a fury not because Obamacare repeal died an embarrassing and messy death. They’re angry because Trump’s failure breaks his spell over Congress as for the first time in his Administration and in its first legislative test, his power to reset the agenda with a few strategic tweets failed him.
The loss undoes the myth that Trump came into office with a mandate and the concomitant political capital that would allow him to bend Congress to his will on a wide spectrum of issues. The Fear of a Mean Tweet seems to have faded, and his in-the-room persuasion fell flat. After days of frenetic arm twisting, Trump appears to have moved the ball almost nowhere.
Second, the loss demonstrates that when you’re marketing something that amounts to an economic and policy earthquake, you’d better not put your money on Trump changing the public mood. As Trump argued for Trumpcare, its approval plummeted (as has his personal approval, but for additional reasons) and that of the hated Obamacare plan rose. Health care is a big-kid policy game, and Trump’s cheeseball sales skills didn’t bring much to the table. He seems much happier being President Toot Toot The Truck Driver than delivering actual, adult-level reform on one of the most complex and consequential issues in American political life.
The Great Salesman couldn’t close the Trumpcare deal. The moderates hated it because it looks so heartless. The Freedom Caucus hated it because it looks so gutless. The sane hated it because it stank of failure and political downsides a mile away.
Ryan and Trump ran into the political version of advertisings famous Bad Dog Food Test: you can’t sell bad dog food even with good advertising. The dogs won’t eat it.
Third, it revealed Trump’s character, which is never pretty. Trump’s clumsy I’m-just-joking threats against members of Congress fell utterly flat, as did promises of his favor. His word means nothing and lawmakers know it. In Trump’s long, sordid life no deal, contract, agreement or vow has ever been sacred and inviolable. Ask his wives, partners, contractors, and clients. He is a man without a single shred of regret at breaking even the most solemn commitments. In Washington, no matter how corrupt it looks from the outside, the only currency in a tough vote is trust.
The passengers on the Health Care Titanic who feel chained to this President need to remember that outcomes only matter to Trump when they make him the center of the story, swell his already monstrous ego, or make him money. The Freedom Caucus has his number: he believes in nothing, knows little of the conservative ideals that drive them, and has little ability to deliver.
The loss showed members that the scammer-in-chief is also a mark. House Republicans who privately loathe him (a larger number by the week) know they can play the D.C. game of “My good friend Donald!” and fluff him before they fleece him. This will make it much harder for Trump to sell trillion-dollar boondoggles like his infrastructure bill, immigration restrictions, and the Ivankacare Childcare plan. Nothing to give and nothing to take is a bad spot from which to negotiate.
Like a bully who goes down after finally getting punched, Trump isn’t looking good. Unlike hosting a banal reality television show or pitching golf club memberships, the Presidency is the ultimate position of accountability in American political life, and the simple fact is he’s not very good at it.
As with any rejection,this one will taint Trump’s feelings toward Ryan and Congressional Republicans, likely forever. The President’s loathing of the Speaker is only stoked by the Speaker’s peace overtures and cooperation. The worst of Trump’s spleen, though, will be for the Freedom Caucus and for the people he described as “moving from no to yes” after his Oval Office meeting. He’ll play it off as “I didn’t want to take the head cheerleader to the prom anyway” but it will rankle.
As for my party, well, if Obamacare was a crapulous wreck that rewarded pharma, big insurance, and others as a price of its passage, Nobamcare was simply a different set of rewards for the same players. Crony capitalism on the left and crony capitalism on the right are still crony capitalism. None of the reasons the ACA was so deeply unpopular were truly addressed by the AHCA.
After almost a decade of running messaging and campaigns (and Lord knows how many Obamacare ads I’ve done) against Obamacare, this was the best we could do? Apparently, no one sat in a room and said, “Hey, how’s this going to play out in the press? How will ordinary people take this? Does this thing actually, you know, lower premiums and deductibles?”
Set aside the policy questions, which I’m by no means qualified to address. Regardless, It’s malpractice to build a plan without a plan to sell it. This was a disaster from start to finish, and Republicans running in 2018 will face attacks from both directions; they didn’t kill Obamacare or that they didn’t fight to save it. There was a terrible, shallow television marketing campaign attached, which appeared to move exactly zero votes toward the bill. The White House and House messaging were almost entirely base-only, and as anxiety levels went up they did nothing to address the fears of Americans.
Americans hated Obamacare (for many good reasons) until they were presented with an alternative that was so poorly crafted and marketed that it looked good by comparison. How could my party’s policy class fail so badly?
This bad week for Ryan and Trump probably spells the end of health-care reform for the foreseeable future. For Ryan, his ongoing fight with the Freedom Caucus took a turn for the worse. For Trump, his collapsed standing with the public and the Congress will have a long ripple effect. As the storm clouds of his Russia ties build, it’s hard to see how a loss like today will lead to a productive relationship with Congress, or the political capital to survive the complex challenges to come.