Analysis: The outsider dealmaker faltering in White House
WASHINGTON — Donald Trump campaigned as an outsider — celebrating his lack of political experience by selling himself as a dealmaker willing to buck Republican orthodoxy and his own party’s leadership. He alone would reshape Washington.
He’s tried governing the same way. His actions are a blitz. He rarely consults old Washington hands. And he hangs the threat of retribution over anyone who challenges him. And now he and his party have been dealt a stinging defeat on a signature campaign promise, a defeat that further weakens a president whose approval rating has hovered under 40 percent and humiliates Republicans who have pledged for seven long years to undo President Barack Obama’s health care law.
Trump’s haphazard approach on Friday to the health care bill — first demanding a House vote despite an uncertain result, then suddenly suggesting he’d support a future bipartisan solution — underscored Trump’s political identity: He is an independent, seemingly uninterested in leading a political party or unifying the federal government. The failed vote — despite Republican control of the White House and both houses of Congress — highlighted severe cracks within the GOP that Trump’s presidency won’t easily mend.
Trump now wants to turn to tax reform, an ambitious, complicated plan at the center of his agenda, and he does so wounded by the health care collapse as well as the uncertain legal status of his travel ban and an ongoing federal investigation into possible contacts and coordination between his campaign aides and Russian officials.
The loss exposed a limit to Trump’s go-it-alone style, one forged over decades in the business world and seemingly proven effective by his improbable win. The novice campaigner used the sheer force of his celebrity and personality to draw loyal supporters and frequently bend the Republican Party to his whims. He defied the party leadership repeatedly, skipped a debate, refused to sign a loyalty pledge and turned the scathing power of his Twitter account on fellow Republicans even after he clinched the nomination and the party pined for unity.
“This is who he is. He’s a dealmaker. He knows how to do deals and there’s no deal here,” said Ed Cox, chairman of New York state’s Republican party, who has known Trump for decades, sometimes as friend, sometimes as foe. “He always wants to move on to the next thing, even going it alone.”
But experts say that maverick style has hurt his ability to govern effectively.
“Donald Trump’s ‘Art of the Deal’ doesn’t work in Washington. Politics is a profession and you have to know how to collect votes,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. “Trump is a salesperson and he oversold what he can get done.”
Brinkley said Trump’s failure stood in stark contrast to the master negotiations conducted by presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, who enjoyed majorities in both houses of Congress and achieved sweeping legislative accomplishments. Instead, Trump’s initial struggles were reminiscent of the problems Jimmy Carter faced when he declared that his fellow Democrats were “an albatross around my neck” while facing intraparty rebellion.
More than two dozen members of the House Freedom Caucus oppose the health care plan because they say it doesn’t go far enough to undo Obamacare. Some moderate Republicans, meanwhile, were turned off by a recent Congressional Budget Office analysis predicting 24 million people would lose coverage in a decade. Republicans seemed willing to risk Trump’s wrath, taking comfort in the political safety their deep-red home districts provide against his possible attacks.
Trump was once a Democrat. He favored abortion rights most of his adult life, has shown little stomach for fighting over social issues and espoused views on trade similar to those of liberal Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
He often doesn’t work in specifics, allowing supporters to read in what they want, and he’s been frequently mercurial, abruptly shifting stances — like when he abandoned his vow to send Hillary Clinton to prison — yet rarely losing support of his loyal backers. That degree of unpredictability gave some credibility to his ultimatum to force a Friday vote or keep Obamacare in place, despite his years-long crusade against it.
Trump’s commitment to the bill seemed wavering. He said Friday “there were things in this bill that I didn’t particularly like” and, for the first time, suggested that he would support a bipartisan health care measure. He also claimed that “I’ve never said repeal and replace Obamacare within 64 days,” a surprising statement considering he vowed to do so “on day one” nearly every night on the campaign trail.
“He’s left everything on the field when it comes to this bill,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said before the vote was pulled. “He pulled out every stop, he has called every member, he has tweeted every tweet, he has done every single thing he can.”
Though Trump publicly abstained from blaming House Speaker Paul Ryan, the White House suggested some fault lay with members who opposed the measure, with Spicer declaring “they would have go to back and answer to their constituents.” That act of political defiance should seem familiar to the occupant of the White House, according to one longtime Trump ally.
“The people who are defeating this are the ones most like Trump — ones willing to break from the pack,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who also questioned the wisdom of setting a hard deadline to pass the legislation.
“If it was a negotiating tactic, it wasn’t a good one,” said Gingrich, who suggested that relations between Trump and Ryan, always strained, would get worse. “The president feels burned. I suspect you’ll see him far more engaged on matters like tax reform, which he is passionate about. But it will be more complicated now.”
The failure to get the health plan through the House, a task considered easier than in the Senate, may portend even greater difficulty in passing complicated tax reform and the rest of Trump’s ambitious agenda.
“Doing big things is hard,” said Ryan.
Associated Press Writer Jonathan Lemire has covered The White House and politics for The Associated Press since 2013.
Follow Lemire on Twitter at http://twitter.com/@JonLemire