border adjustment tax, Congress, conservatives, Freedom Caucus, healthcare, Im-Politic, Immigration, infrastructure, Obama, Obamacare, Paul Ryan, Peggy Noonan, Republicans, RyanCare, tax reform, Tea Party, The Wall Street Journal, Trade, Trump
The list of realities, considerations, factors – call them what you will – that President Trump either forgot or overlooked as he pushed for House passage of the Republican healthcare bill is long, impressive, and pretty obvious according to the Washington, D.C. conventional political wisdom. On the off chance you haven’t heard it or read it, it includes the difference between cutting deals among real estate tycoons and negotiating with ideological politicians; his own voters’ tendency to rely heavily on the kind of government healthcare aid that the GOP legislation either eliminated or sharply curbed; the powerful vested stake developed after years or working with it in the current healthcare system – however troubled it might be – by major participants in the system; and the dangers to Mr. Trump’s own credibility and political power of choosing to tackle first a highly contentious subject (like healthcare) instead of a priority that’s reasonably uncontroversial (like infrastructure spending).
All those points seem valid to me, but I would add two more that seem at least equally important. Then I’ll present an interpretation of the healthcare story that hasn’t appeared anywhere else yet but that shouldn’t be overlooked – if only because it ties the otherwise puzzling story together in ways that are admittedly byzantine, but that make eminent sense in a Machiavellian (and therefore quintessentially political) way. In fact, this analysis dovetails exceptionally well with the president’s clear (to me, certainly) determination to remake American politics by rejecting the doctrinaire conservatism embodied by the Republican party for decades, and thereby increasing its appeal to independents and moderates.
The first such consideration that should be added to the overlooked list: how much more difficult it is both politically and substantively to take away government assistance used by economically stressed Americans (like those who backed Trump in droves) than it is to enable them to thrive without the assistance via other major planks of the Trump platform – chiefly immigration and trade policy overhaul.
One of the secrets of Trump’s success, after all, was his recognition that vast numbers of working and middle class Americans no longer buy the mainstream Republican argument that they could greatly increase their economic self-reliance through the wealth that would trickle down to them through shrinking taxes and government. He understood that this promise would always ring false as long as so many good jobs and so much income were being sent to foreigners through offshoring-friendly trade policies and mass immigration.
So it’s easy to understand why the Republican healthcare legislation registered so little support from even Republican voters – no doubt including many Trump backers. He seemed to be putting the cart before the horse not when it came to the kinds of government programs touted by liberals that Trump-ites viewed as bupkis, but with a program that had become central to their lives. (For a terrific analysis of Main Street views of healthcare at the usually ignored gut level, see this column by The Wall Street Journal‘s Peggy Noonan.)
The second neglected consideration flows directly from the first: President Trump’s election shows that the Republican party has moved significantly in his more populist and particularly less ideological direction, if not at the interlocking think tank/donors/Congressional level, at the far more important voter level. As a result, there was no apparent reason for Mr. Trump to defer to the more ideological Congressional Republicans on the healthcare front.
More specifically, even though the national party’s leadership did indeed treat Obamacare repeal and replacement as a defining principle and promise to its grassroots, and even though candidate Trump expressed strong opposition to his predecessors’ signature achievement, healthcare was never the defining principle of the maverick movement he led. That’s why he so frequently spoke of achieving healthcare goals that have been so widely rejected in Republican and conservative and leadership circles, like ensuring universal coverage.
So why did the president lead off his legislative agenda with orthodox Republican-style healthcare reform? Here’s where the story gets Machiavellian to me – but in ways that should be entirely plausible to anyone familiar with how successful political strategists think. Further, it’s a narrative that fully takes into account the hyper-partisan nature of Washington and legislative politics with which Mr. Trump needs to deal. And it goes like this.
The president recognizes that even though he’s remade much of the Republican base in his own image on the issues level, he also must realize that the Washington Republicans – which include the party’s mainstream conservative Congressional leaders and its more ideological Tea Party wing – remain hostile on the highest profile matters on his own agenda. I imagine he also recognizes that they might be powerful enough to undermine his initiatives on trade, immigration, and/or infrastructure – especially if Democratic leaders remain in their adamant “resistance” mode.
For even if Democrats are ultimately winnable on trade and infrastructure, they have no interest even in these areas in giving the president the kind of quick victory that would greatly strengthen the odds of turning his first term of office into a success that would boost the odds of his reelection. They have even less interest in helping Mr. Trump further strengthen his appeal to many of big Democratic constituencies.
So the Washington Republicans needed to be at least neutralized – and sooner rather than later. And appearing to fight the good fight for their healthcare reform proposal was an ideal way to demonstrate his loyalty to their objectives and strengthen his case for demanding concessions from them in return in areas he valued much more highly. This calculation looks especially shrewd since the Republican bill was so draconian that even had it squeezed through the House, the Senate was bound to prevent its reaching his desk in anything like its current form.
As a result, now that the “RyanCare” legislation is dead, Mr. Trump can say to both the House Republican leaders and even to the hard-line Freedom Caucus something to the effect, “We tried it your way, I carried lots of your water, and I paid a noticeable price. Now we drop the healthcare effort, pivot to my priorities, and I expect your votes, even if you won’t pull front-line duty. And when we do address healthcare as Obamacare’s failures multiply, you’re going to do right by your own constituents and drop the free market extremism. P.S. Anyone remaining obstructionist comes into my social media cross-hairs with your reelection bids coming up.”
I have no inside information here, and my reasoning could certainly be too clever by half. Moreover, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my professional life is that just because an analysis seems logical or commonsensical, doesn’t mean that it’s true. But even though it’s only about a day since the healthcare bill was pulled from a scheduled floor vote for the second and final time, I derive some satisfaction in seeing the president is making nice with both House Speaker Paul Ryan and the Freedom Caucus members, and making clear that it’s tax reform time (which could bring a tariff-like border adjustment tax). Which could mean that Donald Trump’s presidency is highly conventional in at least one respect – temptations to dismiss it as a failure should be strongly resisted.
Sheldon Hills said:
Who knew you would grow up to be so smart!
Alan Tonelson said:
Must’ve been the air over Roslyn Pines! Great to “have you aboard” of course, and hope all’s been well!
Lemuel Vargas said:
Think he (The Donald) wanted Ryancare to not pass the House because he did not do any arm twisting of the Freedom Caucus clique but just constant needling. This way, he could introduce his version of the Heathcare w/c, with time will have matured enough for the majority of we the people to support.
Alan Tonelson said:
Thanks for the comment, and that’s pretty much how I see it!
Kaiser Derden said:
no too clever by 3 quarters sir … you ascribe things to Trump that are CLEARLY your beliefs and ideas … not his … Trumps a negotiator … this was the opening bid in a negotiation … period … anyone putting more weight on it than that is just projecting … and foolish …
Alan Tonelson said:
Kaiser, Thanks for your comment, and you could well be right. If my analysis does indeed wind up looking foolish, I’ll deal with that problem when the time comes. At the same time, your own contention that the events of the last few weeks simply represent the first phase of a negotiation seems broadly consistent with my argument that, when healthcare returns to center stage in Washington, the president is going to pressure the Congressional Republicans to back something that many Democrats can favor, too. In fact, he’s already talking about eventually working with the Democrats – although he predicted this will occur once they feel their own pressure to compromise after Obamacare collapses: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/24/us/politics/health-care-affordable-care-act.html?_r=0
Marty Rowland said:
Alan, this article is pure genius.
Alan Tonelson said:
Thanks, Marty! I just hope I’m right!