Analysis: President Trump would like to move on, but healthcare bill’s demise will punish him
President Trump addresses the cancellation of a vote Friday on the GOP’s plan to overhaul the Affordable Care Act.
Blame for the failure of the Republican healthcare bill will fall on multiple parties, including House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, who helped craft it, and the conservative and more moderate GOP factions that warred over its details and cost Republicans the unity they needed.
But the political impact will inevitably fall hardest on President Trump, who presented himself in the presidential campaign as a man singularly positioned to serve as the ultimate deal maker in Washington.
During the campaign, Trump mocked traditional politicians as negligent negotiators not up to the task of forging agreements for the benefit of Americans, whether in the area of trade or healthcare policy.
As Friday’s swiftly moving developments made clear, however, it was his administration that was not up to the requirements of pushing through difficult legislation. The White House proved unable either to craft a policy balance that could please enough Republicans or to come up with a compelling argument to persuade Americans to pressure members of Congress.
“To have the opportunity to do it, and not get it across the finish line — I don’t think it can be viewed in any way other than a big defeat,” said Lanhee J. Chen, a Republican policy specialist and veteran of past presidential campaigns.
Trump, in brief remarks after Ryan (R-Wis.) pulled the bill from consideration, did not take responsibility for its demise. He blamed Democrats for failing to vote for the measure but also suggested he would work with them for a bipartisan and “truly great healthcare bill in the future.”
Trump also indicated he was relegating healthcare to a lower position on his agenda and putting a priority on tax reform, which he has suggested in recent days has long been his favorite topic.
But any important legislation the president hopes to push could now be in danger from some of the same factors that doomed the healthcare measure.
Even when analysts suggested that its costs would fall most harshly on some of his own voters — older, poorer Americans — he did not counter with any specific argument, other than the insistence that those voters should trust him.
The ideological divisions that marked the healthcare debate are likely to resurface during discussions of tax policy and the budget.
The tax fight is expected to feature wrestling between traditional Republicans seeking tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy, and more populist members who want to give greater help to the middle-class voters who contributed to Trump’s victory.
On the budget, Republicans are likely to be split between competing desires to cut the deficit and expand defense spending.
Trump’s stance in those fights is up in the air. Even more than most politicians, he has been reluctant to ask voters to accept trade-offs, putting him in a weak position for crafting legislative compromises.
He is hurt further by entering these legislative fights from a vulnerable position; he is operating far below ground when it comes to voter support.
A Quinnipiac University poll published this week said that 56% of voters disapproved of how Trump was handling his job; only 37% supported him. Other polls have shown similar numbers.
Worse for the president, some of the voter groups that have most strongly backed him have begun pulling away, the poll indicated.
Two weeks ago, a Quinnipiac poll showed that male voters backed Trump by 4 points; in the latest poll, they disapproved by 9 points. His support among Republicans has fallen from 91% — a typical rating for a president from his own party — to 81%. Among whites, narrow support has given way to a 6-point deficit, the poll found.
Among the group that arguably secured the presidency for Trump — white voters without college degrees — only 50% approved of his tenure, compared with to 43% who disapproved, a stark difference from their enthusiastic approval of him earlier.
“We’ve been polling for 24 years and have never seen anything like this,” said Timothy Malloy, the assistant director of the poll. “Far and away, the worst numbers ever seen in a president.”
Trump likely did not help himself by backing a healthcare plan that was less popular than he is. The poll found that only 17% of Americans supported the measure; more than 2 in 5 voters said they were strongly against it.
Notably, Republicans were unenthusiastic about the proposal, while Democrats were energetically against it.
“There’s fear in those numbers,” said Malloy, referring to findings that a majority of Americans were afraid the plan would diminish insurance coverage.
A big loss, even an early loss, does not necessarily presage a failed presidency. As Chen noted, Trump has nearly four years to go before his next election.
“People in politics have very short memories. I don’t think it sets the course for the rest of his presidency in any way,” said Chen. So far, he added, Trump has accomplished “a lot of good combined with unforced errors.”
But learning from the healthcare disaster will require not only a change of strategy, but an awareness of shortcomings for a president who, for all his attraction to disruption, has been stubbornly set in his ways.
The responses of the two Republican leaders on Friday was as instructive as it was opposing.
Speaker Ryan spoke of the difficulty of passing “big things” and took his own share of blame: “We’ve got to do better, and we will,” he said.
Trump, however, indicated with some relish that he was looking forward to watching Obamacare “explode” — seeming unconcerned about the human impact.
“They own it,” he said of Democrats.
He praised his fellow Republicans. But in his one comment that indicated the loss might serve as a learning experience, he included the suggestion of payback against those in his party who had dared to vote against his wishes.
“We all learned a lot,” he said. “We learned a lot about loyalty.”
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