Reading the New York Times last night and this morning, I felt like I had been plagiarized. It seems that what was once a lonely voice is rapidly becoming common wisdom. It’s been a recurring theme of my analysis for months that the Trump administration had blundered badly by marrying his unorthodox and in many cases heretical campaign for the Republican nomination and presidency with a strategy that is wholly reliant on conventional conservative Republicans for implementation and passage.
In particular, the decision to sign off on the never-before-attempted plan to pass two budget reconciliation bills in a single fiscal year is beginning to look like a narrow-alley dead end in a very bad neighborhood. The idea was that the Republicans could take advantage of the fact that since they never did their budget work last year they still had the opportunity to finish that up with a health care bill that only requires fifty votes to pass (with the vice-president breaking any tie). They could then use the same legislative trick to pass tax reform in this year’s budget plan at a fifty vote threshold. Without getting into all the parliamentary rigamarole that’s involved, the most significant consequence of adopting this plan was that the administration believed and acted as if they would never need a single Democratic vote for anything, ever.
The first problem with the plan was two-fold. First, by relying only on Republican votes in the Senate, they assured that they would get only Republican votes in the House, too. In itself, that wouldn’t be a problem except that it gave House Republicans permission to pass the most right-wing health care bill their moderates could stomach. That bill had no relationship to the promises Trump made on the campaign trail where he said he would protect Medicaid and not leave people dying in the street.
The plan relied on Republican unity. With only 52 votes in the Senate, any health care bill would have to win the support for virtually all of their members. But many of their members represent states that expanded Medicaid. If Trump had learned nothing else about Congress during the Obama years, he should have known that they have factions and are hard to lead. Did he not notice that Speaker of the House John Boehner lost his job because his own members refused to follow his leadership and rebelled when he had to go to the Democrats repeatedly to pay our bills on time and keep the doors to the government from being shuttered?
Trump put his health care agenda in the hands of conservative Republicans and then relied on a disunited party to act with complete discipline. This was a recipe for a bill that polls about as well as a case of genital warts and that cannot win passage because it is so heartless.
The second problem is more general. By acting as if the Democrats don’t matter and have nothing to contribute, the Republicans (both in the congressional leadership and in the White House) badly alienated a group of senators who might have been willing to lend Trump a hand on at least some of his agenda. And he has an agenda besides Obamacare repeal and tax reform that will need to get sixty votes in the Senate. In other words, he needs eight Democratic senators to sign off on anything he wants to do that isn’t contained in one of his two budget reconciliation bills. This was never going to be easy, which is kind of the point. To succeed, Trump couldn’t adopt a hard right agenda or think he could rely on that large of a rump of Democrats to back him in fulfilling the GOP’s longstanding wish list.
Now that McConnell has failed (at least, for now) to implement the dual budget reconciliation bill plan, he’s confessing that he’ll need Democrats to help him fix the damage his party and his strategy have done to the health care exchanges of the Affordable Care Act. Of course, that’s going to come at a price.
“At this stage,” said Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, “there is general agreement among Democrats that it would be premature to meet with Republicans. We have to know that this repeal bill is dead.”
In this case, Sen. Schatz is merely keeping true to Chuck Schumer’s admonition and guidance to his caucus:
Rather than taking advantage of his honeymoon phase to pick an issue on which Democrats from conservative states might be amenable — fixing the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, cutting taxes or stiffening immigration laws — Mr. Trump raced toward the most partisan corner of the room, pushing to repeal the health care law with no input from Democrats, in a manner that has proved deeply unpopular.
Democrats, watching Republicans careen around in search of a health care solution, honored the demand of Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, that they stick together in their refusal to lift a finger to help until repeal was taken off the table.
And perhaps most important, Mr. Trump has rarely bothered to ask.
If that looks familiar it’s because I’ve written essentially the same thing over and over again. It’s not just health care and tax reform that are in peril. If Trump attempts to raise the debt ceiling using nothing but Republican votes, he will fail, too. If he tries to pass appropriations bills without any Democratic support, the government will either shut down or be funded on continuing resolutions that keep Obama’s priorities in place. He will not get an infrastructure bill without significant Democratic input and support.
Not only can he not govern successfully using this strategy, he cannot govern at all. This is why I foresaw that his administration would crack up on the shoals sometime this summer, and certainly no later than September when the fiscal year ends and the debt ceiling becomes critical.
Most concerning was the prospect and likelihood that he had painted himself into a corner and would discover that he had no way of recovering from the mess he’d made. As McConnell’s plan for Obamacare repeal faltered, he began warning his caucus of exactly what I am explaining now. But it was too late and the plan was never going to work anyway. The only thing that McConnell had to use in support of a bill that the people hate was the direness of the consequences of failure. But either he doesn’t understand the severity of the problem or he was unable to communicate it effectively enough. Perhaps it’s just not salvageable on any level, since the only way to delay their fate is to pass a bill that would strip 22 million people of their access to health care.
The consequences will begin to pile up now. Trump will lash out in ever more confusing and bizarre ways. And then the indictments and plea deals will start to flow in from Special Counsel Bob Mueller’s shop. By Thanksgiving, if not before, the nation will be confronted with the urgent need to remove Trump from power and I suspect there will be more consensus about it by then than most people can imagine right now.