Liberals are gloating that the defeat of the American Health Care Act means that Trump’s presidency is over. “The stunning collapse of the Republican health-care bill now imperils the rest of President Trump’s ambitious congressional agenda,” the Washington Post says this morning. It was surely a blunder to unveil a hastily-prepared health care bill that the Republican leadership thought could be simply rammed through, and this raises questions about whether the House is well served by having a conservative policy wonk like Paul Ryan as speaker rather than a traditional pol like John Boehner, but I’ll save that question for another time.
The present question, which has been on my mind since inauguration day, is whether Trump might flip the script for his presidency in just the same ways he did with his campaign. In other words, Trump’s rocky start and the setback of the health care bill might actually serve as ironic catalysts for a presidency that gets stronger and accomplishes more in the long run.
I think Trump is the first president since Lincoln who has received no “honeymoon” period in Washington as is typical for new presidents—and for the same reason as in 1861: Democrats have essentially seceded from the American people, and won’t accept the results of a national election. (I’m also tempted to ask whatever made anyone think the thrice-married Trump would get a honeymoon? C’mon.) Democrats control so little territory that they can’t act literally on their secessionist impulses—though note deep blue California, where Democrats are actually talking about secession. But you can swap out “resistance” today for “rebellion” in 1861 and capture the Democratic Party mood accurately.
This all means that any accomplishments Trump may achieve will be extremely hard won, similar to the slow strengthening of Lincoln’s presidency. I’ve thought from January 20 that the lack of a traditional political honeymoon might serve Trump well in the long run. Scott Adams of “Dilbert” fame, who has been right about Trump since the escalator ride back in June 2015, thinks something similar. He notes in his latest blog post that the new media narrative is that Trump is no longer Hitler, about to fasten the dark night of fascism on us, but is instead suddenly Trump the ineffectual incompetent. But he thinks this will flip back by year end:
With the failure of the Ryan healthcare bill, the illusion of Trump-is-Hitler has been fully replaced with Trump-is-incompetent meme. Look for the new meme to dominate the news, probably through the summer. By year end, you will see a second turn, from incompetent to “Competent, but we don’t like it.”
I have been predicting this story arc for some time now. So far, we’re ahead of schedule.
Then, too, I can recall in detail the story arc of Reagan’s first year in office, which is regarded nowadays as a triumph of presidential leadership and legislative accomplishment, but in fact was a much closer run thing that people recall. By the last week of March in 1981, Reagan’s tax cut and budget proposals were in deep trouble on Capitol Hill. Like the House last week, the Senate finance committee had voted it down, prompting a famous Wall Street Journal editorial attacking the Republican committee chair Sen. Pete Domenici as “John Maynard Domenici.” Democrats and the media were getting ready at the end of March to declare that Reagan’s “honeymoon” was over, and that his tax and budget-cutting agenda was dead.
Then Reagan got shot, which reset Reagan’s honeymoon and allowed his team to regroup on Capitol Hill, ultimately yielding congressional victories in June and August (also, incidentally, using the budget reconciliation process for the first time to achieve their broad policy goals). Even with Reagan’s high popularity after his shooting, it was still a hard-fought battle on Capitol Hill. Whoever thought a health care bill could get through the House in two weeks was not thinking very clearly.
I don’t recommend that Trump emulate Reagan’s experience of getting shot (even though the left’s inevitable public celebration of such an event would make fully evident their disgraceful character). But regrouping and having another go at health care reform seems far from impossible. I am surprised Ryan rushed this proposal. It took a year and a half for Congress to work through tax reform in 1986 (and that had been preceded by two years of special studies by the Treasury Department about how best to go about it), and likewise the fundamental welfare reform of the mid-1990s took time and several iterations.
Trump breaks all the standard rules of politics. His current abysmal approval ratings—levels never before seen in a president in his third month in office—constitute a floor from which he has only one direction to go. And I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Trump has the trump cards to play in this story.