The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Allowing Obamacare to collapse isn’t the political trump card the president assumes

(Evan Vucci/AP)
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At a meeting of conservative groups held at the White House on Wednesday, President Trump reportedly offered a possible backup plan if the health-care bill on Capitol Hill doesn’t succeed: Let Obamacare fail, and start over from that point.

According to CNN’s Jim Acosta, sources who were in at the meeting told him Trump suggested letting Democrats take the blame for a collapsed health-care system.

This is something Trump has said before, including during a meeting of state governors last month. “Let it be a disaster,” he said then, “because we can blame that on the Dems that are in our room, and we can blame that on the Democrats and President Obama.”

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Trump had made similar comments in tweets in January.

“Republicans must be careful in that the Dems own the failed Obamacare disaster, with its poor coverage and massive premium increases,” he tweeted, “like the 116% hike in Arizona. Also, deductibles are so high that it is practically useless. Don’t let the Schumer clowns out of this Web … massive increases of Obamacare will take place this year and Dems are to blame for the mess. It will fall of its own weight — be careful!”

But is that correct?

Trump’s focus since he’s been in office — and, really, since he won the election and since he won the nomination and since he started running — has been on the priorities of a core group of conservative voters. For the most part, his actions since Jan. 20 have taken the form of executive orders, the sort of sweeping, no-consensus-needed dictate that’s simple to implement but not necessarily broad in its effects. The health-care bill is the administration’s first major effort that requires the consensus-building that defines legislative efforts on Capitol Hill. This is why he was meeting with those conservative groups — many of them oppose the House health-care proposal for a variety of reasons.

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That this is Trump’s first foray into such a fight means also that it’s the first time that he has had to extend his pitch outside of that core group of supporters that he’s been relying on and acting on behalf of. The “Dems will own it” thing, though, shows that he still doesn’t really get it.

For example, imagine that you take over driving a school bus. The bus runs, but the “check engine” light is on and there’s visible wear and tear. Trump is saying that, if the school board won’t give him a new bus, he’ll just keep driving the current bus until it seizes up and stops running. Who do you think the parents will blame when their kids don’t make it to school, the guy who drove the bus before Trump?

But we should overlay another factor: Trump is hoping to keep driving the bus as is, even though he also owns a mechanic shop. He wants a new bus, but he’s saying he won’t even take his current bus to the shop he owns if need be. In that case, who are the parents going to blame?

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It’s not really so weird that Trump assumes that he wouldn’t bear blame for Obamacare’s collapse while Republicans control the House, Senate and White House. After all, he continues to enjoy robust support from Republicans despite (or perhaps in part because of) the outcry from his political opponents. If Trump actively caused Obamacare to collapse — taking with it the health care of any number of Americans — much of Trump’s core base of support wouldn’t likely abandon him. Much of that base would probably celebrate this belated insult to President Barack Obama.

Trump, as the ostensible head of the Republican Party, likely wouldn’t be doing anyone else in his party any favors, however. If Obamacare were to collapse before 2018, for example, Trump’s base of support and loyal Republicans probably wouldn’t be able to prevent an electoral disaster if the party were blamed for the collapse, as it almost certainly would be. Is Jeff Flake’s Senate seat in Arizona going to be safe if his party is blamed for causing people to lose their insurance through inaction?

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Not that the assumption that Obamacare will fail is a certain one, even if nothing were done. It’s a big if. Or imagine if things deteriorated and there was a risk to coverage for a large group of Americans. Say the Republican Congress passes a stopgap measure fixing the problem so that those people don’t lose their insurance. Is Trump going to veto the bill?

There’s another problem with Trump’s “we can let Obamacare fail” proposal: It undercuts the entire reason for his meeting with conservative groups, which is that the new bill demands conservatives’ support. It’s like saying that you desperately need to borrow $10 from your mom to see a movie, but, if she doesn’t give it to you, you’ll just go see the free screening tomorrow. Expressing indifference to getting what you want is a curious way to try to get what you want.

At the heart of Trump’s comments is his continuing disinterest in building coalitions that extend beyond the people who already like him. He can’t executive-order his way through everything, and some of his policy choices will require him to reach beyond the people who already stand with them. This health-care fight is a good opportunity to do so, an opportunity that the president doesn’t seem to be embracing.