Second of Three Parts
In Part One of this series, we looked at some lessons of the recent Obamacare fail. Now we’ll examine prospects for other parts of President Trump’s agenda.
“The Hard Pivot”
The big news on Monday, of course, was the arrival of Trump’s new chief of staff, General John Kelly, who immediately dismissed the White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, who had become his own unwanted sideshow.
Yet another, even bigger story, has been unfolding this week, suggesting that the Trump administration, as well as Republicans in Congress, are adjusting their policy strategy.
Most proximately, there’s been the matter of getting the healthcare albatross in the rearview mirror. Having eaten up precious months already, health care can’t be allowed to swallow what remains of this year’s legislative calendar.
We can look back and see that the repeal-and-replace effort was a valiant try at keeping a campaign promise, but it just wasn’t working. Sometimes, as Kenny Rogers might have put it, you’ve got to “Know when to fold ‘em/ Know when to walk away.” Yes, that’s the “the secret to survivin’.” As Trump has always said, failure can happen, but tactical flexibility is the key to long-term success.
Mindful of that survive-so-as-to-fight-again-and-win ethos, GOP leaders on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue have been making what’s been described by one insider as “a hard pivot to tax reform.”
In fact, the pivot has been happening for a while. On July 27, even before the final healthcare fizzle, top GOP officials gathered to release a joint statement on tax reform. Here’s part of it:
We are all united in the belief that the single most important action we can take to grow our economy and help the middle class get ahead is to fix our broken tax code for families, small business, and American job creators competing at home and around the globe. Our shared commitment to fixing America’s broken tax code represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and so for three months we have been meeting regularly to develop a shared template for tax reform.
There it is: growth and jobs—exactly what Trump Nation most wants. Thus the headline in Friday’s Politico: “Republicans looking for quick bang from tax reform for 2018 election.”
On Sunday, The Hill bannered its own headline, “GOP to begin vigorous sales job on tax reform.” The article detailed, in particular, the tireless efforts of House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX) to move the tax issue forward. On August 16, Brady will be speaking on taxes at the Reagan Ranch in California. That’s a particularly symbolic locale, as the ranch was the beloved retreat of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. It was on August 16, 1986, that a House-Senate conference reached an agreement on tax reform, one of the 40th president’s top priorities.
We might add, historical fun facts aside, that forward progress today is a political imperative—the GOP needs to get some points on the board. As Republican National Committee chair Ronna Romney McDaniel told Breitbart News Daily on SiriusXM on July 31, the party, eyeing the coming elections, has to get things done:
Congressionally, we are going to have to have some accomplishments to run on, and that’s something that voters are going to be looking at, because it is the Senate and the House up [for election] in 2018. We’re going to have to make a case to Republican voters as to why they need to return us to the majority, and that’s going to come from getting things done here in Washington.
To be sure, the smoke from the healthcare dumpster fire still hasn’t fully dissipated, and yet that same day, July 31, Mike Allen, the ultra-buzzy lead dog at Axios, shone a bright light through the haze:
Never mind President Trump’s weekend of after-the-whistle tweeting about health reform. The White House, Senate and House are all united in moving on full steam to tax reform this week—with heightened urgency, since Republican lawmakers are more desperate than ever to pass something substantial ahead of midterms … Republicans’ House majority is in more danger than ever after the face-plant on health care.
So once again we can see: It’s important for the GOP to turn the page—and tax reform, a Republican verity, is a page-turner. In the words of Roll Call’s Simone Pathé:
If there’s a silver lining to the GOP health care debacle, multiple Republicans said it may be that the party will be compelled to work even harder on tax reform when they return in September—because they know they need a major legislative win before the election year.
So yes, Republicans have received the message—and they’re about to start sending that message. As Axios’ Jonathan Swan reported on Sunday, “Trump will use this week’s theme, ‘American Dream Week,’ to start building the case for tax reform.” Swan added that tax reform has always been a better fit for the President, who once described the House GOP healthcare bill as “mean”:
Trump was never authentically enthusiastic, or even particularly knowledgeable, about repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. But the President is authentically excited about tax reform, so we’ll see if his salesmanship is more effective here.
So on Tuesday, it was refreshing to see the President speaking to a cheering audience at a small-business-oriented tax reform event—the first of many tax events this coming month.
(This author, who first got into politics in the late 1970s because he was inspired by the bright Reagan/Jack Kemp vision of supply-side economics, is delighted to see this renewed emphasis on the tax-cut issue; he should also disclose that today he is part of a group that is working on tax reform.)
Some Still Want Another Kick at Health Care
It’s understandable, of course, that not everybody on the right will agree that it’s time to get off the dime of health care.
Immediately after the failed Senate vote, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), a leader of the House Freedom Caucus, told The Washington Examiner:
We continue to work on two different plans with our Senate colleagues. We will continue to do that over the next couple of weeks on a plan that can get to 51.
Moreover, the Heritage Foundation has been avidly retweeting a July 28 article, headlined, “Congress Needs to Go Right Back to Work on Health Care Reform.” In fact, there are such working discussions, even now, about health care; in DC, there are always discussions about everything.
Yet Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has cautioned against any large-scale resuscitation of the healthcare bill, including the last-ditch “skinny repeal”:
I don’t think the American people will understand it if we say we’re going to cancel your insurance and just trust us in the Congress to come up with a replacement. Most pilots like to know where they’re landing before they take off.
In addition, on Monday, Sen. John Thune (R-SD), the #3 Senator in the GOP leadership, poured still more cold water on the cooling corpse of the bill:
Until somebody shows us a way to get that elusive 50th vote, I think it’s over. Maybe lightning will strike and something will come together but I’m not holding my breath.
Thune’s chilly point was reinforced by Philip Klein in The Washington Examiner:
Republicans can talk all they want about efforts to revive the bill, but until there is a breakthrough that can win over 50 Republicans, the healthcare push will remain dead.
Dead? As in, really, truly dead? We must concede that just about anything is possible—especially these days, when the conventional wisdom has been flummoxed so many times. So sure, lightning could strike, and things could change. As we know, it was a bolt of lightning that brought Frankenstein to life.
Yet it’s risky to make plans based on the hope of a lightning strike. Still, it might be worth detouring to take a gander at prospects for a miraculous resuscitation.
The Tough Trio: Collins, McCain, and Murkowski
As a matter of simple math, if the repeal-and-replace—or, as some would say, “just repeal”—were ever to get through the Senate, it would take the flipping of at least one of the tough trio of Sens. Collins, McCain, and Murkowski. Nowadays, as a group, the three are getting plenty of reinforcing love from the Obamacare-friendly AARP. Yet let’s take a look at each in turn.
We can start with the most prominent: John McCain. The Arizonan’s standing as a war hero—and now, his new status as a cancer victim—seems to make him fully armored against any kind of pressure. We might add that in addition to McCain’s overall imperviousness, it’s thought that he used his “no” vote to protect other GOP colleagues from having to vote “no.” If that’s the case—if he is acting with the tacit acceptance of less intrepid colleagues—then McCain is all the more unlikely to reverse course.
As for the other two lawmakers, they seem just as dug in. And they’re getting plenty of help from the Main Stream Media as they entrench themselves further; here’s the post-vote headline of New York Times columnist Gail Collins: “Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, the Health Vote Heroines.” Also, The Washington Post, not normally a friend to Republicans, is actively scorning “misogynistic” attacks on the two women. Thus we can see: the pair now have the benefit of a protective MSM cordon.
Yet back home, folks there, too, seem happy with their Senators. CNN chose to highlight the spontaneous applause that Collins received at the airport in Bangor, Maine. Indeed, in the assessment of the Bangor Daily News, Collins “may be Maine’s most popular politician, regularly registering approval ratings in the mid-to high-60s.” The newspaper added, “A 2014 poll during her last re-election campaign saw her pulling more support from Democrats than from Republicans.”
Some political observers might detect a warning sign for Collins, insofar as she doesn’t poll so strongly among Republicans. In fact, it’s possible that Collins could be vulnerable in a future Republican primary. Yet she also knows that Maine has a long tradition of electing independent Senators, including capital “I” Independents, such as her colleague, Sen. Angus King.
As for Murkowski, she, too, has a history of going her own way. Back in 2010, she was defeated in the Republican primary, and yet won in November in a write-in. And as Bloomberg’s Steven Dennis recently reported:
Murkowski told me that at every Alaska airport she went to over the weekend, people came up to her thanking her for her vote, some in tears.
Admittedly, such a happy report could be wishful spinning—or maybe it’s the literal truth. It’s at least possible that Murkowski could be the target of another “RINO hunt.” Yet she’s not up for re-election until 2022, and so in the meantime, her opponents have little leverage.
So we can see: Thune’s pessimistic judgment about his three maverick colleagues seems well-founded. And in any case, as always, winning politics is about addition, not subtraction. So if some Republicans are tempted to think that they can purge their way into a governing majority, they might think again.
Yet even so, some Republicans seem to have yet another idea for doing away with Obamacare.
The Slow-Motion Repeal Option—Beware!
If legislatively repealing Obamacare seems off the table, another idea being batted around is that Republicans should go about subverting Obamacare—or, to put it more nicely, just letting it collapse.
As President Trump has said and tweeted many times, “Let Obamacare implode.” The thought here is that if Obamacare falls apart, the Democrats will then seek to make a deal to save it, and that will open up the legislative process once again, leading to Obamacare’s demise.
Such a scenario is conceivable, but it seems highly unlikely. For one thing, Democrats and the MSM are ready to pounce on the Trump administration for doing anything that could be even remotely interpreted as undercutting the law. Here’s a opening shot, in the form of a July 28 headline in the left-leaning New Republic: “Next on Republicans’ Agenda: Sabotaging Obamacare.”
So here’s some free advice to any Trump appointee at the Department of Health and Human Services: If you have anything sneaky in mind, have a lawyer on retainer, because it’s a safe bet that the MSM—aided by whistleblowers, inspectors general, and Deep Staters—will be all over it.
Moreover, if anything does go wrong with Obamacare, the country is prepped to blame Republicans, not Democrats. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll taken in June, 59 percent of Americans say that Trump and the GOP are now in control of the government and thus responsible for making Obamacare succeed; moreover, 74 percent say they should “do what they can to make the law work.”
We can also add that if the Democrats ever were to come back to the bargaining table in a comprehensive way, the subject on their minds wouldn’t be “repeal Obamacare”—it would be “single payer.” Do Republicans want to negotiate that?
So by now, perhaps we are starting to see that health care simply isn’t the best GOP issue—at least not when Republicans choose to define the issue as rote cuts and not much else. As this author has argued in the past, a policy agenda based on medical cures would be more appealing and would save money, too, because good health is less costly than illness.
Yet for now, we can conclude this discussion of health care by observing that it was a suboptimal issue with which to lead off 2017. And to those who still want to work at it some more, we can recall that corny-but-true wisdom: There’s no education from the second kick of a mule.
Now to other topics: We have to admit that some front-burner issues this year aren’t necessarily obvious winners, and yet they are important.
For example, the Trump administration, along with the Congress, will have to manage three yuge issues: the defense budget, the continuing resolution on the overall federal budget, and the debt ceiling. In addition, there’s the mundane work of staffing up the young administration. In past months, the Democrats have succeeded in blocking or stalling a record number of presidential appointees, and yet that doleful situation could soon be changing. If so, that’s to the credit of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell; we can say—he has persisted.
In the meantime, there are other issues to pursue. For instance, last Thursday, President Trump led a ceremony at the White House for the first responders who, back in June, saved the lives of so many Republican Members of Congress. As we all know, law and order is good policy, and it’s also, of course, good politics. So let’s have more of both.
Also, on Friday, Trump went to New York to focus on illegal-alien street gangs and the crimes they commit, even as his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, had just been in El Salvador, working on the same issue. (Yes, there’s been Trump-Sessions friction of late, and yet as every good coach knows, winning team members don’t always have to be fond of each other; what’s necessary is that they pull together when they have to, leaving their personal differences on the sidelines.)
Indeed, these anti-crime efforts inspired Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY), the first Member of Congress to endorse Trump last year, to declare that the President “had one of the best weeks he has ever had.” Collins zeroed in on the crackdown against the MS-13 gang, which he rightly described as “one of the scourges of America.”
If support for law enforcement and opposition to crime are two strong issues for Trump and the GOP, there are plenty of others as well. One such is a right-of-center approach to social issues, which helped inspire onetime “Reagan Democrats” to become full-fledged Trump Republicans. Susan Berry’s provocative piece for Breitbart News, “Seven Ways Trump Is Taking Back America’s Culture,” is guaranteed to start arguments, but given the aforementioned need to change the subject away from health care, that’s a good thing.
Another strong subject is missile defense. Just on Thursday, Iran fired off a new rocket, and on Friday, North Korea also fired a new one. Indeed, it’s thought that within the next year or two, North Korean missiles will be able to hit most of the continental U.S. Surely, defending the country is an issue that all Americans—okay, almost all Americans—can rally around.
So Trump and the Republicans might put forth an ambitious new agenda for missile defense, to make sure that no rogue nation can threaten the safety of America and its allies.
So we can see: If the GOP can step over the bog of health care, there are plenty of strong issues to land upon.
Of course, looking further ahead, we can also add other issues that both hardcore Trump supporters and swing voters might deem essential; most notably, Trump Nation wishes to see solid and permanent action on border security—that wall he promised in 2016—and also, significant progress on the infrastructure spending that would pump lifeblood into the Heartland.
Yet as noted in Part One, no policy is worth much unless there’s an effective team to advance it. If athletic coaches say that there’s no “I” in “team,” there’s also no ‘I’ in ‘Party.’”
In politics, without a strong party, if everyone does his or own thing—then everything falls part. So if there’s to be a successful new game plan for the rest of the year and beyond, all Republicans searching for victory ought to get with the play.
It’s the only way to win.
Next: A History Lesson About What Can Happen to the Insistently Stubborn.