House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) avoided total humiliation in wriggling out of the president’s order to take what he knew would be a losing vote on the American Health Care Act. That he had to go, whip list in hand, to the White House, tells us how far he has been reduced in stature by this process.
In refusing to take a vote that apparently would not even have been close, Ryan at least avoided unnecessarily putting his own members at risk (e.g., moderates who were asked to take unpopular votes, conservatives who would disappoint the hard-edged Heritage Action and other groups working against the bill). He also retained a smidgen of his own stature. Had he gone forward he would have effectively forfeited Congress’s standing as a co-equal branch of government.
Ryan will remain speaker because no one else wants the job, but in a sense he does not “lead” the House Republicans, let alone the House. He is continuously caught in the crossfire between the moderates and the far right, just as his predecessor was. He will have his hands full keeping the House together in the future on controversial, “hard” votes. The lesson members learned was to look after their own interests. Calling Ryan and Trump’s bluff worked well for them.
While Ryan loses stature, Trump does not necessarily gain any. Previously he claimed victory merely by decimating the opposition (GOP challengers, Hillary Clinton, a reporter, etc.). Now Ryan’s loss is not Trump’s gain. (It might be Stephen K. Bannon’s gain, but not Trump, who needs to show results.) Trump shares responsibility for a bill he endorsed and lobbied hard to get. (Press secretary Sean Spicer said Trump “left everything on the field.”) His rallies and threats and his vapid cheerleading count for nothing when it comes to governance. What worked in a campaign no longer serves any useful purpose.
Trump now will rightly be seen as a weakened, if not inept, president. His attention span lasts only a couple of weeks before, starved for adulation, he moves onto the next thing in search of affirmation. Democrats know this, as do Republican opponents. You can wait this guy out.
Trump may choose to shake up his staff, but the bravado and the willful ignorance about policy come from the top. His defiance of norms and refusal to operate in the real world are formidable hurdles that impair his ability to do his job. Unless he changes (at 70 years old, he is unlikely to) he will lose over and over again.
Health-care reform surely is dead for now, most likely for the remainder of Trump’s term. Trump, rather than slaying the Freedom Caucus, let the Freedom Caucus defeat him. If Trump wants to get anything done, they reason, he will have to go through them. If Trump wanted — as he was willing to do with a very right-wing health-care bill that contradicted his populist ethos and many specific promises — to turn right in order to appease the emboldened Freedom Caucus, he would still be left with opposition from House moderates and the Senate. In trying to govern like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), he’ll find himself without popular or legislative support. And if Trump pursues that course, he will wind up sacrificing his base without much to show for it.
In short, Trump now stands as the emperor with no clothes — vulnerable, weakened and mocked. Sad!