Opinion writer
Republicans withdrew the American Health Care Act moments before a scheduled vote on March 24, after failing to woo enough lawmakers to support it. Here are the key turning points in their fight to pass the bill. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

THE MORNING PLUM:

President Trump has convinced himself that the Affordable Care Act is collapsing of its own accord, and once it does, Democrats will fall on their knees before him and grovel for a deal in which they will help remake the health-care system on Trump’s own terms. As his new tweet on the topic puts it: “The Democrats will make a deal with me on healthcare as soon as ObamaCare folds — not long.” Thus, the GOP health-care fiasco will be miraculously transformed into a Trump victory.

But despite all the bravado, what’s really happening now is that the failure to pass the GOP repeal-and-replace plan has ensnared Trump and Republicans in a trap. And it may force a course of action that ultimately boomerangs on Republican voters — on Trump voters.

This trap is illuminated by some new reporting in the New York Times, which tells us that GOP strategists are divided over the way forward. Some are convinced Republicans must continue to wage war on the ACA, to avoid demoralizing the GOP base, while others fear doing that could alienate swing voters:

Sifting through the wreckage of a disastrous week, Republican strategists and elected officials were divided over the best way forward. Some House Republicans pressed to move on to other issues and notch some victories that could delight their own loyalists while not turning off swing voters. …

But other longtime Republicans warned that if the party did not address what they have derided as Obamacare, an issue that has been central to their campaigns for the last seven years, they would incur a heavy political price in the midterm elections. …

What troubles many Republican strategists is the specter of the party’s most reliable voters being bombarded by reminders of their leaders’ failure to address the health law. They fear a recurring story line sure to pop up every time insurance premiums increase, providers leave local networks, or, most worrisome, Republicans fund President Barack Obama’s signature achievement.

Conservatives, many of whom opposed the House repeal bill, now warn that it is untenable to stand pat on the issue — and that lawmakers will face retribution if they do not return to the repeal-and-replace effort.

Either Republicans keep targeting the law by reviving their repeal plans, which are unpopular outside the GOP base (and even among some Republican voters), and illustrate their own divisions and incompetence — or they put off repeal, which reminds their base of their feckless failure to come through on a campaign promise. Exacerbating this problem, if Republicans put off repeal, they immediately blunder into another dilemma: whether to take steps to shore up the ACA’s individual markets — or to do nothing at all or even actively undermine them.

The rub of the matter, as the Times story reports, is that GOP strategists fear that Republicans cannot be seen helping the law succeed. It’s not hard to see why. Shoring up the exchanges would amount to helping the law remain in place, after seven years in which one of the party’s touchstones was absolute rhetorical devotion to the law’s total and immediate destruction. It would also amount to a tacit admission that the law is not inherently or inevitably destined to implode. It would be a concession that the law can be made to work if Republican officials want to participate in making that happen.

Many Republicans are politically locked in a place where such a concession is unthinkable. This is why Trump continues to rage at the law as an ongoing disaster. It’s why he and other Republicans continue robotically repeating that its extinction is imminent, despite the fact that the catastrophic failure of their replacement effort has revealed them to have no alternative to it.

This ideological prison of sorts requires unwavering fealty to a future in which the ACA has collapsed and vanished from American life. Which means that, absent a revived repeal push, there could be more pressure on Trump and Republicans to refrain from participating in fixes to the law or, worse, more pressure on them to sabotage it. As Michael Hiltzik explains, the Trump administration has sent mixed signals as to what it will do on this front, but sabotage is clearly an option, and there are many tools it has to destabilize the individual markets.

But here yet another problem intrudes: Such a course of action could end up hurting a lot of Republican and Trump voters. By encouraging insurers to exit the marketplaces, it could leave many of the 12 million people who have obtained coverage on the individual markets with no remaining options — no way to get coverage or to access subsidies to cover that coverage. And Larry Levitt, a senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation, tells me that this would hurt marketplaces in all regions of the country, which means deep red Trump territory, too, particularly because some of that includes rural areas where there are fewer insurers.

“Trump country tends to be areas where there’s less competition,” Levitt says.

This humanitarian impact would give Democrats an opening to propose their own fixes or even more ambitious long-term reforms. As Brian Beutler points out, Democrats can not only attack Republicans for “abdicating their obligation to faithfully execute the law” in the interests of the American people; they can also “point to solutions Republicans are intentionally shunning.” We don’t know how much the prospective human toll of inaction or outright sabotage will weigh on Trump and Republicans. But you’d think it would matter, at least to some degree.

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* TRUMP TRIES TO WIPE OUT OBAMA’S CLIMATE LEGACY: The Post reports that Trump is set to sign an executive order Tuesday that will begin unwinding Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, the rule that limits carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. Note this:

The order is silent on whether the United States should withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate agreement, under which it has pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions between 26 and 28 percent by 2025 compared to 2005 levels, because the administration remains divided on that question.

Of course, keeping the CPP is crucial to meeting our commitments in the Paris deal. But environmental lawyer Richard Revesz, the author of a terrific book on the climate and energy battles, tells me Trump’s effort will be tied up in legal challenges for years.

* TRUMP’S MOVE WON’T BRING BACK COAL JOBS: Coral Davenport talks to energy economists who deliver the bad news, noting that the Clean Power Plan is not responsible for the loss of coal jobs:

Rather, they blamed two key forces: an increase in production of natural gas, which is a cheaper, cleaner-burning alternative to coal, and an increase in automation, which allowed coal companies to produce more fuel with fewer employees. The rollback of Mr. Obama’s regulations will not change either of those forces, economists say.

We’re losing count of all the various ways that Trump is scamming his own voters.

* REPUBLICANS FACE DEEP DIVISIONS ON OTHER ISSUES: The Associated Press previews what Republicans face in the weeks ahead, as the deep divisions that doomed their health-care effort are now likely to show up on other issues, especially tax reform:

Republicans must overcome internal differences on that issue too, including whether to impose taxes on imports to encourage manufacturers to produce products domestically and whether the measure should drive up deficits. Congress is fast approaching a deadline to pass government-wide spending legislation or face a shutdown. … That could prove difficult, with conservatives possibly insisting on more money to build Trump’s border wall or to halt federal payments to Planned Parenthood.

In other words, this rolling disaster is just getting started.

* RUSSIA PROBE IS IN TURMOIL: CNN reports that the House Intelligence Committee is scrapping upcoming meetings, as Democrats are calling for Chairman Devin Nunes to step down from the ongoing Trump/Russia probe after briefing the White House on new information:

Democrats believe he is too close to the White House to lead a thorough investigation into Russia — including ties between the Trump camp and Russian officials — an assertion firmly rejected by the GOP. … The decision to scrap this week’s meetings shows that the panel is facing serious turmoil and questions about whether it can proceed.

This meltdown only strengthens the case for an independent probe, which of course is being resisted by Republicans who continue to build a protective wall around Trump.

* KANSAS MOVES TO EXPAND MEDICAID: This is a big deal: the Kansas state Senate just took a key step toward expanding Medicaid to 150,000 of the state’s residents, with final approval expected Tuesday. But Gov. Sam Brownback (R) may veto it:

“To expand Obamacare when the program is in a death spiral is not responsible policy,” Melika Willoughby, Brownback’s spokeswoman, said in a statement as the Senate kicked off debate on the bill. … Conservative lawmakers have said they hope that Brownback vetoes the bill, while moderates and Democrats fear he’ll do just that.

The bill is backed by a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats, but even so, the lie that the ACA is in a death spiral may be the excuse for Brownback’s veto.

* TRUMP MAY NOT GET HIS BIG MEXICAN WALL: Politico reports that congressional Republicans, worried that Democrats will not support funding the government if it includes spending on Trump’s wall, may separate the two:

Republican leaders … are considering a plan that would not directly tie the border wall money to the April 28 government funding deadline. … While no decision has been made by GOP leadership, Republican lawmakers may decide to decouple the two to avoid a confrontation with Democrats. If they do, the chances of getting Trump’s wall funding passed this spring become slim.

All the winning is just overwhelming.

*AND CHECK OUT TRUMP’S HISTORICALLY AWFUL NUMBERS: With Trump’s approval sliding to 36 percent in Gallup, NBC’s First Read crew puts that in historical context:

To put that standing into perspective, here’s where Gallup had these other early presidencies at about this same point in time:

Barack Obama: 63% (March 16-22, 2009)
George W. Bush: 53% (March 26-28, 2001)
Bill Clinton: 53% (March 12-14, 1993)
George H.W. Bush: 56% (March 12, 1989)
Ronald Reagan: 60% (March 15, 1981)
Jimmy Carter: 75% (March 20, 1977)

What’s more, George W. Bush never hit 36% in Gallup until 2006 — well after Hurricane Katrina and after the Iraq war had turned south.

#FakePolls #FakeNews #AlternativeFacts