Despite the hue and cry over the House Freedom Caucus’ refusal to sign on to the health care legislation backed by both President Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan, the failure of the bill shows that the solution to politics as usual may not be as simple as electing someone who claims not to be a politician. It also shows (again) that the GOP is lacking in principle-driven leadership.
Neither the consummate politician Ryan nor the bomb chucking outsider Trump could get the legislation passed. Postmortems of the AHCA debacle in both Politico Magazine and The Washington Post both paint a picture of how wonkish triangulation failed to change minds and brute force failed to dragoon conservatives into voting for a bad bill. The normal “establishment” Republican reaction to this sort of failure is to blame the conservatives for their irrational “ideological purity” and to castigate them for not helping their President get a “win.” Leon Wolf at The Blaze notes how moderate Republicans who were equally dug in against the bill were never targeted for public criticism. That’s telling.
However, while most of the headlines focused on Freedom Caucus opposition to the bill, moderate opposition to the bill was equally trenchant and based on the media’s deceptive narrative that 24 million Americans would “lose coverage” (an interesting job of framing the free decisions of Americans to not purchase coverage in the absence of a legal mandate to do so).
There is probably no avid Trump supporter who did not attempt to win him votes with some variation on the idea that he’s not a professional politician. What the AHCA battle revealed is that in the sense of actually understanding and promoting policy, Trump is indeed not a politician. He lacks the knowledge, skills, and abilities required to do the technical aspects of the job effectively. However when it comes to the self serving ambition and ruthlessness we associate with professional politicians, Trump excels. He is very much a politician, just not a very good one.
Donald Trump had heard enough about policy and process. It was Thursday afternoon and members of the House Freedom Caucus were peppering the president with wonkish concerns about the American Health Care Act—the language that would leave Obamacare’s “essential health benefits” in place, the community rating provision that limited what insurers could charge certain patients, and whether the next two steps of Speaker Paul Ryan’s master plan were even feasible—when Trump decided to cut them off.
“Forget about the little sh*t,” Trump said, according to multiple sources in the room. “Let’s focus on the big picture here.”
The big picture in this case was “winning,” which meant proving he could build a consensus and that it wasn’t just a phony sales pitch when he promised that his deal making skills would bend Washington to his will. Trump knew little about the policy around which he was trying to build consensus. He approached the bill like the Republicans in Congress were his corporate underlings who would handle the details while he vaguely repeatedly told voters that the bill was “great” without saying why.
Trump’s approach didn’t work, but neither did Ryan’s.
Speaker Ryan has shown himself to be just as much a slave to the notion that passing something equals success. He may be conservative but he does not lead as a conservative. He often tries to portray compromise as a great leap forward when the kinds of compromises made in Washington usually only end up being a great leap leftward which might have been greater if not not for a few concessions extracted by Republicans.
While Republicans ran for years on a full repeal of Obamacare, they got scared once that goal was finally within reach. Democrats, their media accomplices, and squishy Republicans successfully cowed Ryan into moving the goal posts. Instead of what had been promised and successfully voted on a number of times, what they tried to deliver was an amended Obamacare with an IOU to maybe fix things in subsequent “phases.” Then the focus became entirely about the political necessity of passing this new version of Obamacare. Compromise with the left is always a victory for the left.
What this whole episode shows is that leadership based on principles matters. Trying to finesse a compromise bill through the House is no more effective than selling the bill like a backslapping, manipulative car salesman would. Elements of both techniques might be valuable at times but when the success of a bill takes precedence over the principles you’re trying to defend and promote, you’ve already set yourself up for failure. We need a leader who is willing to fight and we need a leader who knows policy but either one is worthless if they don’t have a vision that extends beyond perceived political victory.
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