Analysis

In His First Big Political Test, Trump Crashed and Burned

To a world that doesn’t like or trust him anyway, the defeat of his ObamaCare repeal signals that Trump is weak and ineffectual too.

U.S. President Donald Trump, with Vice President Mike Pence (R) and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price (L), at the White House in Washington, March 24, 2017.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP

NEW YORK - The only good news Donald Trump had this week was that the person who sent bomb threats to Jewish community centers throughout America was a problematic Israeli youth from Ashkelon and not an anti-Semite that he had inspired. Otherwise, it was Trump’s week from hell, from the director of the FBI proclaiming on Monday that the president was being investigated for near-treasonous collusion with Russia to his public humiliation on Friday by stubborn Republican lawmakers who refused to succumb to his demand to support the bill meant to replace ObamaCare. In such disastrous situations it is customary to be consoled with the thought that things can’t get worse and that from here the only way is up, but Trump is a special case, so who knows.  

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The latest flop isn’t registered in Trump’s name alone, of course. House Speaker Paul Ryan, identified more than others with pledges to repeal ObamaCare, showed that he couldn’t manage his own GOP majority or overcome the distrust of his ultra-conservative flank. The Republican Party as a whole, which for the past seven years has been describing ObamaCare as a catastrophe, struck out big time. Given an historic opportunity to repeal and replace a law they detest, GOP lawmakers came up with a half-baked proposal that drew internal criticism and sparked widespread public dissent. After all the fear and loathing they whipped up against Obama because of his law, Republicans will now shrug and tell their voters “Oh well. We tried. Guess we’ll have to live with ObamaCare after all.”

U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan at a press conference after President Trump's healthcare bill was pulled from the floor of the House of Representatives, March 24, 2017.
WIN MCNAMEE/AFP

Nonetheless, most of the media scrutiny in the wake of this humongous fiasco is bound to focus on Trump. He promised to repeal and replace ObamaCare in his first day in office, and was forced to admit on Friday that he couldn’t deliver the goods. He said he was the greatest dealmaker in history, but he crashed and burned in his first big test. Despite the 43 member GOP majority in the House of Representatives, Trump couldn’t impose his will on the so-called Freedom Caucus nor could he convince or cajole moderate Republicans to follow his lead, neither by flattery and incentives nor by threats or ultimatums. 

Trump may be president but he just found out that he isn’t a king, that political bargaining is not the same as boardroom deals, that life is not a reality show where he gets to decide in the end and that, unlike the situation in the Israeli Knesset, his party’s lawmakers are not his serfs and don’t necessarily follow his orders. Some are much more scared of their voters and others are far more loyal to their beliefs.

Trump’s downfall, which obviously gives great pleasure to his Democratic rivals, exposed his many weaknesses as chief executive. He didn’t take an active role or display minimal interest in preparing the law. He didn’t have any grasp of its details. He didn’t engage in substantive bargaining with GOP holdouts, believing that vague promises, pats on the back and open threats will get the job done. He made a costly beginner’s mistake by threatening to bring the proposed American Health Care Act to a vote no matter what and then backing down on Friday when Ryan told him the votes simply weren’t there. He discovered the political truth that Obama learned the hard way during his eight years in office: that divided Republican lawmakers can unite in order to be destructive but find it much harder to be constructive, even when the president is one of their own.

And as if his situation wasn’t bad enough, Trump made sure to make it even worse when, unlike Ryan, he childishly evaded responsibility and tried to pass the buck to the Democrats. Even though most objective observers describe his apocalyptic depiction as gross exaggerations, Trump insists that ObamaCare is on the verge of collapse, but since he didn’t get his way, he’s going to let millions of Americans suffer instead of doing his best to avert the coming disaster. Trump, who doesn’t react well to perceptions of failure, behaved on Friday like a spoiled child who didn’t get his toy. It’s doubtful whether many Americans, including his own party members, viewed his reaction to the setback as a display of presidential leadership.

Trump’s failure is bound to worsen his already faltering approval ratings. It comes on top of the ongoing suspicions about his ties to the Kremlin, which refuse to go away. It will raise doubts about his ability to carry out any of his other major goals, including tax reform. And in a world which doesn’t seem to like Trump or trust him very much, his defeat will add a far more worrying concern into the mix: that he is a weak and ineffectual president, whose arrogance and inexperience cause him to stumble and fall.

U.S. commentators are already depicting Trump’s first two months in office as the worst presidential opening in history. Trump is wasting the prestige and respect usually accorded to presidents who have taken their party to the White House. Nonetheless, on the assumptions that predictions of Trump’s early demise are misplaced, it’s too early to bury his presidency. To bring it back on track, however, Trump will have to start taking his work seriously, to rely more on experienced Washington insiders and less on clueless firebrands from the outside, to extend a hand to Democrats and try to get their cooperation, to stop behaving childishly and impetuously, to restrain his arrogance and not to let his ego dictate his moves. The only problem is that up until now, Trump has given no sign that he has either the ability or the inclination to make the necessary changes.