Sixty-five days do not ultimately define a presidency, especially the first 65 of a new president’s first term. That’s as true for President Trump as for other presidents who suffered early setbacks. But without some serious stocktaking inside the White House after the failed effort to replace the Affordable Care Act, there could be more trouble ahead for the most unorthodox president of modern times.
The debacle Trump and the Republican Party just experienced is no doubt an especially searing experience for a president whose self-image depends on successes and who bragged on the campaign trail that he would produce so many victories in office that people would get “tired of winning.”
In his Oval Office remarks after Republicans pulled the health-care bill Friday afternoon, he said he had learned some lessons from the process that produced such a major defeat. The next weeks and months will demonstrate whether that was empty talk or something real — and whether he and the Republicans can make the transition from opposition party to governing majority.
The president has an opportunity to adjust, adapt and ultimately to recover, if he’s prepared to undertake a sober analysis of what happened on health care, and more broadly, how to operate as president. Ultimately, the presidency is about more than signing executive orders, holding listening sessions in the White House or taking the show on the road for campaign-style rallies before boisterous crowds of devoted supporters.
President Trump has tried to set a fast pace in his first months in office, moving from issue to issue with breakneck speed as he sought to demonstrate that he was keeping his campaign promises. It was almost as if he intended to prove that he would keep them all by the end of his first 100 days in office. Instead, he has taken only partial steps at best, racking up a report card of mostly incompletes.
Save for his nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, which has been from start to near-finish the smoothest undertaking of the administration, the inventory of his first months in office includes few true success stories and certainly no important legislative achievements. Meanwhile, the presidency is clouded by the FBI investigation into the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible links between Trump associates and Russians.
The health-care fight highlighted one of the basic contradictions of Trump’s presidency. He and the Republican Party have never been on the same page, and the long-standing tensions between Trump and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) symbolize those differences. The two men seemingly worked together as best they could during the health-care fight. They had no other choice.
Both said nice things about the other in the wake of the defeat. But the background sniping from Trump allies toward Ryan continues, led by Breitbart News, which was once under the leadership of Stephen K. Bannon, the White House chief strategist and senior counselor. It is a reminder that the Trump-Ryan relationship is a political marriage that will remain fragile at best. Ryan’s agenda has never been Trump’s agenda. Trump’s primary constituency, grounded in the alienations and aspirations of middle-aged and older white working-class voters, is not the same as that of Ryan and establishment Republicans.
A president benefits from having a strong speaker and vice versa, as former president Barack Obama and then-House speaker Nancy Pelosi proved. So Trump and Ryan will be inextricably linked for as long as both hold their offices. The question is the degree to which Trump decides to change the terms of that alliance.
Trump won the election with significant support from conventional Republican voters, but the animating message of his candidacy was anything but Republican orthodoxy. Instead, it was an anti-establishment, nationalist populism, best articulated over time by Bannon but also instinctively embraced by candidate Trump in his early campaign.
Whether on trade or immigration or America’s place in the world, candidate Trump was at odds with the party whose nomination he captured. But the early days of his administration seemed more an expression of the kind of conventional conservatism that he demolished. The health-care fight highlighted some of the conflicts inherent in those differences.
Candidate Trump and his campaign team never produced a serious plan to repeal and replace Obamacare. His promise to get rid of Obamacare was a political rallying cry and little more. But to the extent that he was asked about his priorities for health care, he often emphasized his desire to see everyone covered. “Insurance for everyone,” he told The Washington Post’s Robert Costa in January.
In office, whether by design, indifference or because his administration was disorganized, he ceded substantive control of the health-care effort to Ryan and congressional Republicans, who eventually were joined by Vice President Pence and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. They produced legislation that struck at parts of Trump’s most loyal constituency.
But Trump never seemed to care about the details of the complex measure. He spent hours cajoling and cheerleading but could not close the deal. In the end, lacking a substantive case, and with concessions to hard-line conservatives causing alarm among more moderate conservatives in swing districts, his only argument was that this bill was too important to fail. When it collapsed, he blamed the Democrats for the defeat, although he never made an overture to anyone in the opposition party.
Now he is left to pick up the pieces and plot a new strategy. On health care, he tweeted Saturday, “Obamacare will explode and we will all get together and piece together a great healthcare plan for THE PEOPLE. Do not worry.” Perhaps he can eventually reach accommodation with Democrats on a bill to repair the ACA, although they may not be anxious to throw him a lifeline right now and it’s questionable how many House Republicans would go along.
The president indicated Friday that he is eager to move to tax reform, but tax reform is no less complex than health care — perhaps even more complicated without passage of the health-care bill. Some Republicans are suggesting he should look for a bipartisan path by combining a massive infrastructure initiative with a major tax cut, attracting both Democrats and Republicans. That raises the obvious question of whether Democrats would cooperate with a now-weakened president.
His other challenge could be keeping Republicans in line. His budget already has run into problems, and as congressional Republicans look toward 2018, they will act in their own self-interest rather than the president’s.
For a host of reasons, he has had a rocky start. It is not in Trump’s style to change course or habits. He has always believed he knows better than the conventional politicians he defeated in the election. But what might have worked in the campaign has not worked so well from the White House so far.
Trump governs as the leader of a divided party in a nation divided. He has failed to broaden his support and therefore has no political safety net. The health-care debacle provides a political circuit breaker for the new administration, an event calamitous enough to make even the most self-confident of leaders stop and ask what happened — and what, if anything, can be done to set a fresh course.