Trump’s Speech Didn’t Advance His Cause

Ed Kilgore had a smart take on President Trump’s address to Congress. Rather than focus on how it polled or some of the theatrics, he looked at it from the point of view of Republican members of Congress. Did the president provide them with any clarity or guidance about their mission for the year or even for Trump’s first term? And, from that perspective, the speech was wanting.

Kilgore reminds us that there are three big issues roiling Republican lawmakers in DC. The first is a seemingly helpless struggle to come up with a plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. On this, Trump only gave one sign of where he wants Congress to go. He signaled that he approves of a plan that was circulated (leaked, actually) last week, promptly panned by a report McKinsey & Company provided to the National Governors Association, and abandoned this week. The plan included refundable tax credits that would very inadequately replace the need-based subsidies provided by Obamacare.

States would also lose a significant amount of federal funding as fewer residents received financial support to help purchase individual coverage. The decline in federal funding through tax credits would be between 65 and 80 percent, according to this report.

It wasn’t the report that caused the House Republican leaders to pull the bill, though, despite the fact that it estimated that 30% of ACA-covered people would lose their insurance in Medicaid-expansion states and 50% would lose it non-expansion states. What proved fatal to the bill was the Freedom Caucus’s objection to even these paltry tax credits. In fact, Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows of North Carolina referred to the tax credits as “a new entitlement program.”

As Kilgore noted, Trump seemed to rebuke this objection by expressing support for a tax credit scheme, but he otherwise was silent or unhelpfully vague on the contentious issues surrounding the effort to kill the Affordable Care Act.

The second biggest item on the Republican to-do list is tax cuts. But Trump didn’t really mention tax cuts at all, at least not in any kind of substantive way. He wants to use the tax code to punish companies that move jobs out of the country, but that’s no easy thing to legislate. And, in any case, there’s an obvious disconnect between the White House and Congress on how they are prioritizing this issue.

Finally, there’s the budget.

Trump repeated his commitment to a big defense-spending increase, and did display an understanding that providing that would mean getting rid of the spending cap agreement under which defense spending would be “sequestered” if budget targets were missed. As to how those caps would be cast aside — something that in the normal course of events would require 60 Senate votes and a lot of Democratic support — we heard nada. And there was also nothing about the rest of the budget, including the fraught subject of which entitlement programs would be on and off the table.

These would be big problems for the GOP under any circumstances, but Trump’s near-silence on them has added significance because they have a major impact on campaign promises that Trump made. It may be possible to hash out compromises that will allow the Republicans to repeal and replace Obamacare, pass tax cuts, and enact a budget, but it isn’t at all clear how any of these things can be accomplished without them creating broken promises.

Even if the Freedom Caucus relents on the use of refundable tax credits for health care, millions will lose their plans, which is something that Trump assured us would not happen. Without defining his bottom line on tax cuts, it’s unlikely that they will meet the goals he set out on the campaign. And he can’t fund all his priorities with a budget that doesn’t touch people’s retirement security, which is something he said he wouldn’t do.

The speech may or may not help Trump with his sagging polls, but that’s a blip on the radar. What his speech did not do is move the ball down the field.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.