Imagine you are Donald Trump. You’ve never cared all that much about health care policy. To the extent that you’ve thought about it, you just regurgitated the generic Republican talking points about Obamacare being a disaster, and were sure that if you ever looked into it, you could easily replace it with “something terrific.”
Then you became a Republican president. For seven years, Republicans had campaigned on repealing Obamacare, without settling on a replacement plan. So you had no choice but for this to be a high-priority legislative issue.
And Paul Ryan was ready to go. After all, Obamacare repeal was a great chance to achieve his lifelong goal of making the rich richer and further immiserating the poor so they’d finally learn to stop being so lazy. And once the town hall protests began, Ryan surely knew time was limited. He pushed to do it now, and you went along, because, why not?
Now the repeal bill is shaping up to be a disaster. It is deeply unpopular. By one poll, only 17 percent of people approve of it. Groups on all sides are blasting it as terrible. You were even forced to acknowledge it would actively harm many of the people who voted for you.
And all these warring factions within the party. What a pain! Maybe, given time, you could work out a deal. But that would require actually understanding the details of the policy. And who has the patience for that?
But still: You’re a salesman. You’re used to selling crap. You can get out there, tell wavering Republicans that if they don’t vote for this, “I honestly think many of you will lose your seats in 2018.”
Maybe you’ll get lucky and the votes will fall in line. Then you can take credit. They’ll call you a genius for bringing together the bickering factions, getting everybody to vote for it.
And if not, hey, you’ve sold crap products before and then moved on. Everybody knows you’re a great salesman, and if you couldn’t sell the product, it must be somebody else’s fault. The product must really be a mess.
During the campaign, Paul Ryan had undermined you. And you don’t forgive grudges. Now, if Obamacare fails, you can pin it on Ryan. He took the lead. He said he could make it happen. Clearly he failed. What a loser! You did everything you could to help, but it was Ryan’s process in the House. And it was a mess!
So, force a vote. If it happens, everybody will be saying, What a brilliant move to force the vote, instead of giving everybody more time to bicker. And you can take credit for bringing the Freedom Caucus on board when Ryan obviously couldn’t.
And if it fails, great. Health care reform was a losing issue anyway, and it was way too complicated. Now you can move on to something else you care more about. And best of all, Paul Ryan is now a failure. Maybe his caucus will revolt and finally get rid of him. Serves the guy right.
But then what?
If this at all resembles how Trump sees the situation, it suggests a very hard road ahead for him, and even more chaos.
Yes, health care is complicated. But so is tax reform. So is infrastructure, if he ever wants to move on to that. Pretty much anything that requires legislation is complicated, both from a technical bill-writing perspective, but even mores from a political herding-the-cats and working-out-the-compromises perspective. It’s clear Trump doesn’t have the patience or the mind for either.
Trump’s business career may have taught him that if one scam promotion fails, you can just move on to the next. (Okay, Trump Steaks didn’t sell, how about Trump Vodka? Okay, Trump Vodka didn’t sell, how about Trump University?) But politics is different. Political capital is a much more limited resource than brand equity. Once you spend it, it’s very hard to earn it back. Once you threaten to punish potential defectors, and those defectors buck your threat, future threats look a lot weaker.
Meanwhile, if Ryan can’t get his members in line on the one thing they all campaigned on for six years, it’s hard to imagine how he’ll get everybody in line for anything else. His authority will be considerably weaker after this debacle. He might not even survive as speaker. Either way, there’ll be plenty of blame to go around among competing factions within the GOP. And if there’s chaos in the House and a leadership vacuum, much of Trump’s proposed legislative agenda is just not going to happen.
Instead, the real winner of this fiasco will likely be the Steve Bannon wing of the Trump administration. With Ryan weakened, his White House allies Reince Priebus and Mike Pence will also be weakened, and Bannon’s people will have even more sway. In fact, the way this has all played out almost looks like Bannon has played Trump perfectly. Maybe my headline should even have been “Why Bannon wanted to force a vote on health care.”