There are two things the utter failure of the GOP repeal and replace plan for Obamacare has taught us about Washington under total Republican rule in 2017. First, just two months into his presidency, Donald Trump has little to no power over his political allies in Congress. Second, Paul Ryan doesn’t have the respect of his party.
Faced with a recalcitrant Freedom Caucus and congressional members in unsafe seats, Trump went for broke. The president demanded that the House vote on the bill no matter what, so the American people could see who betrayed him.
It was a classic power move. They don’t want to support the plan? Fine. They can make that known publicly.
Normally, this kind of brinksmanship on the heels of an election between the president and Congress would result in the head of the party winning the contest. Make no mistake, despite all the disarray the Republican Party is in right now, Trump leads the party. And in no small way, he’s responsible for the GOP controlling both chambers of Congress.
So that’s why it came as a bit of a surprise to read in Axios that a meeting between Trump’s right-hand man Steve Bannon and the House Freedom Caucus didn’t get past the gate before the former Breitbart Executive Chair was smacked down hard. As Mike Allen reports, Bannon’s message was direct.
“Guys, look. This is not a discussion. This is not a debate. You have no choice but to vote for this bill.”
That sparked a rejoinder from an unidentified member.
“You know, the last time someone ordered me to something, I was 18 years old. And it was my daddy. And I didn’t listen to him, either.”
The unnecessary family drama aside, the point is pretty clear: the president’s deputy failed to rally support for a bill that the party members in the meeting knew the president wanted to pass the House.
But the caucus had already put Trump on notice that they just don’t find him intimidating. On March 21, The New York Times reported that Trump had made a specific threat to Freedom Caucus member Mark Meadows (R-North Carolina) that if the bill failed, Trump was coming after him.
“But at a private meeting with House Republicans at the Capitol, the president also delivered a blunt warning that many of those present would lose their seats in next year’s midterm congressional elections if the effort failed.
‘I’m going to come after you,’ Mr. Trump told Representative Mark Meadows, Republican of North Carolina, a prime holdout and the chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus, a hotbed of concern about the legislation, according to several people in the room who described his comments on condition of anonymity because the session was private. ‘I believe Mark and his group will come along, because honestly, a loss is not acceptable, folks.’”
Meadows maintained his opposition to the bill. As the legislation’s failure became more and more evident, Trump became more and more angry. Chuck Todd, on MSNBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, asked Pennsylvania Republican Representative Charlie Dent about an anecdote from a New York Times story in which Trump threatened Dent. Dent was unfazed.
TODD: According to an attendee of the meeting you had with him this week, the president angrily informed you, Congressman Dent, that you were, quote, “Destroying the Republican Party,” and, quote, “it was going to take down tax reform. And I’m going to blame you.” Is that how the president— is that what the president said to you? And how did you respond?
DENT: Well, I’m not going to deny that. I listened very respectfully to what the president had to say.
And almost every report in the postmortem from Friday’s failure is showing Ryan to be a weak, ineffectual leader. Ryan begged and pleaded with his members to join onto the bill—likely because, as Paste reported last week, the bill was first and foremost a massive tax cut for the wealthy—but to no avail. The Speaker of the House, the third most powerful man in Washington, had to literally beg, on his knees, for votes and still failed.
“Ryan got down on a knee to plead with Rep. Don Young, an 83-year-old from Alaska who is the longest-serving Republican in Congress and remains undecided.
When the speaker finished with Young, he spent about 10 minutes in an animated discussion with Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), one of the bill’s most outspoken critics.”
On Friday, as the bill was dying, he ran to the White House to beg Trump to allow him to pull the bill. Despite Ryan’s press conference that afternoon, where he at least admitted he was at fault for not rallying the troops, he didn’t come off well by leading with the following wriggle out of responsibility.
“Moving from an opposition party to a governing party comes with growing pains. And, well, we’re feeling those growing pains today.”
As numerous commentators have pointed out, this wasn’t a party going through “growing pains” and developing the strategies of governing after years in the wilderness. No, this was the signature legislation that the GOP ran on for almost a decade: repeal and replace Obamacare. And it’s not like the bill came out of nowhere, the House voted over 50 times to repeal the bill since its passage.
Clearly, something went wrong here. And it’s easy to tell where it went wrong when you look at the GOP leadership. Perhaps Trump and Ryan should have read The Art of the Deal.
“The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it. That makes the other guy smell blood, and then you’re dead.”
Good luck with tax reform, guys.
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