Don’t buy any of the president’s spin: Trumpcare‘s defeat is a huge blow to the White House. It doesn’t mean the Republicans can’t hold both chambers in next year’s midterm elections or that the president’s popularity will plummet. It does, however, mean his hyperbole about his negotiating and dealmaking—“you’re going to get so tired of winning’—will elicit many more sneers.
Healthcare was no mere item on the Republican agenda. It’s been the item at least since the passage of Obamacare in 2010 and the GOP triumph in the midterms later that year. For seven years Republicans have vowed to repeal it once they gained control of the House, Senate and White House. On Friday, they couldn’t even get it out of the House where the GOP has its largest majority since the 1920s. Of course, repealing Obamacare was never going to be easy. But the House Republicans are less ideologically diverse than at anytime in more than a generation. It’s certainly more cohesive than when it was divided between Rockefeller and Goldwater wings. Now Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan have failed. To his credit, Ryan accepted responsibility. Trump oddly described the defeat as a good outcome that would lead to a much better bipartisan bill. He portrayed House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer as the real losers. Ryan had the good sense not to go there.
About the only thing that can be said about Trump’s defeat is that he didn’t completely devolve into churlishness and crazed accusations—at least not against his own party. Speaking in the Oval Office, moments after the healthcare vote was canceled, Trump spoke kindly of Ryan and Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price calling them “amazing” and “fantastic.” He didn’t go negative on the super conservative Freedom Caucus that kept demanding more and more concessions. He kept his cool, which was both surprising and probably reassuring. We’ll see if it lasts.
Both Ryan and Trump have said that they want to press ahead with tax reform and put repealing Obamacare on the back burner for awhile. But tax reform is likely to be much, much harder. It’s been 31 years since Ronald Reagan signed a major bipartisan tax bill that repealed deductions and lowered rates. In the generation since then, loopholes have been added and interest groups stand ready to defend them. Try and roll back the carried interest deduction and a million lobbyists will bite you. The same goes for solar tax credits or depreciation allowances. Things aren’t about to get easier for the Trump administration. Quite the opposite.
Presidents usually learn from their mistakes. Bill Clinton took the health care loss of 1994 and came back with an agenda that could pass. George W. Bush had the good sense to pull his Social Security privatization scheme shortly after he unveiled it. The best presidents are the ones who are constantly adapting and learning. We’re going to find out if Trump is able to grow in office. Can he do a better job wrangling interest groups? (Lots of the big medical groups like the AARP and the American Medical Association opposed the healthcare bill.) Can he build a coalition from the center instead of desperately trying to appease the far right? Infrastructure is high on the president’s list and Democrats have sounded some encouraging notes. If the builder can’t find a way to speed up government-sponsored construction of bridges and roads, then he’s really lost.