Swing State Pres

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Trump Comes to Fork in the Road; Impales Self On It

Steve reflects on yet another episode of self-inflicted carnage of the Trump White House… the disastrous handling of the Republican healthcare bill, and the implications going forward.

Poor Yogi Berra. 

He once pointed out in frustration that he “never said half the things he said.” 

Consider the abuse he took for the famous directions he once gave to his home: “when you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Yogi, however was actually right: he lived on a lane that was a closed loop, so either turn at the fork would lead to his house. 

This week, Donald Trump found himself staring at yet another fork in the road of his presidency, with nowhere near the confidence exuded by Yogi Berra that either path could lead to success. Indeed, the odds seem that both would lead to failure.  

The cataclysmic rupture of his first major legislative initiative was bad enough, but the long term implications of the Republican leadership’s assisted legislative euthanasia were mind-boggling. Trump lashed out at the members of the Freedom Caucus, blaming these conservative Republicans for the bill’s collapse, and threatening to “primary” them in 2018. 

And yet the rudimentary math is painfully obvious: without the roughly three dozen members of the Freedom Caucus, the Republicans do not have a majority in the House. Without the Freedom Caucus, the only way Donald Trump can get anything done is by reaching out to House Democrats. 

Therein, the fork in the road…

  • Does he make amends to the Freedom Caucus, bow to their uncompromising convictions, and in so doing, risk conceding the control of important legislation to the arch-conservatives?
  • Or, does he continue his war with them, betting that he can get more of his agenda accomplished by reaching across the aisle to Democrats, thereby neutering the power of the Freedom Caucus?

Then again, there is a third option: he takes the fork in the road and impales himself on it. Indeed, he already seems well along on this path, squandering the Republican House majority through his petty temper tantrums, insecurity, and – clearly – his mounting fears and distraction caused by the investigation of his campaign for collusion with Russia to influence the 2016 election.

The fate of the healthcare plan Hindenburg that crashed in flames last Friday was probably sealed years ago when the Republican Party was deconstructed into three discrete belief systems unified only by their loathing of Barack Obama and then Hillary Clinton: (1) the Christian right, (2) anti-government, anti-tax Tea Party wing-nuts (3) the centrist conservatives who fondly remembered the days when large Republican Establishment figures named Bush and Romney roamed the planet.

Donald Trump won the White House by simply venting their shared beliefs about the alleged stupidity and incompetence of Democrats, while shrewdly avoiding being pinned to policy specifics and programs that would clearly align him with any one of the factions. Each faction naively assumed that once Trump was in power, the particular beliefs, policies, and philosophy of their individual faction would rule. 

Nowhere was this naiveté more evident than in the Republican embrace of candidate Trump on healthcare. Republicans cheered when Trump promised a healthcare system that would insure all, provide superior medical care, and cost less.  When pressed to explain how this utopian masterstroke might be accomplished, Trump would wave off challengers by invoking the wonders of free markets and increased competition. Indeed, he brayed that it would be “easy.” Republicans nodded feverishly, having long since concluded that anything and everything that is the product of “the free market” would automatically be superior to Obamacare.

What made the failure of the Republican healthcare bill so shocking was that it happened in the U.S. House of Representatives, where Republicans hold a commanding majority. The Battle Royale was supposed to have been waged in the evenly split U.S. Senate. Geez, Republicans had been thinking, if we wanted to, we could get a bill through the House of Representatives to put a bust of Ronald Reagan on top of the Washington Monument and not even break a sweat.

The fact that the failure came in the House simply illustrated that there is no philosophical core to the Republican Party other than Barack Obama was born in Kenya and Hillary Clinton lied about Benghazi. That’s it, folks. Anything more complicated than that triggers an internecine holy war.

In fact, what killed the Republican healthcare plan was the refusal of the hard line anti-government “Freedom Caucus” to support anything short of a draconian shriveling of government healthcare, requiring the removal of maternity services, mental health coverage, allowance for pre-existing conditions, the option to include children up to 26 on their parents’ health plan, and a litany of benefits that could fairly be characterized as components of, well, let’s call it “human civilization in the twenty-first century.” The Freedom Caucus interpreted the election of Donald Trump as the opportunity to realize the dream of ending government entitlement programs. Imagine their surprise when they encountered a president who neither shared this vision, nor appeared grounded in any particular vision, period. 

 If you want to talk about intransigence, consider this: the Freedom Caucus essentially said that they would rather keep Obamacare than agree to a Republican healthcare plan that involved a single concession to the more moderate Republican factions.  Thinking that the Freedom Caucus was going to engage in banter and barter with Donald Trump on healthcare is a bit like expecting Karl Marx to show up as a contestant on “Shark Tank.” Not happening.

For days, Trump witnessed this spectacle from the approximate distance of a luxury box, for two very significant reasons. The first was that he utterly lacked the command of detail that would enable him to get into the thick of policy debate. The second – and profoundly significant – factor was that Trump must have been extremely distracted during the early debate on the healthcare bill by the high drama of James Comey’s testimony that the Trump campaign was under investigation for collusion with Russia to influence the outcome of the 2016 election. There’s nothing quite like the whiff of treason as an impeachable offense to knock your eye off the ball. The Russian investigation seems to grow every day and suck more and more oxygen out of the media – and out of the White House. It now appears possible that Trump’s healthcare bill was one more piece of collateral damage from the burgeoning Russian scandal. 

As the vote drew closer, Trump realized that the House debate over his signature legislation was beginning to look like one of those mass casualty emergency room scenes in Grey’s Anatomy. He threw himself into the debate with far more gusto than finesse, essentially opening his argument by threatening that any Republicans who voted “no” would be staring into the black eyes and razor sharp scythe of the Grim Reaper-Bannon, and that such Republican traitors could look forward to having a primary challenger in 2018, with Trump leading the charge for an alternative candidate in every Freedom Caucus district.

Trump would quickly and ruefully learn that his bullying threats of retribution were met with cold and unimpressed disdain of a prom queen approached for a dance by a nerdy sophomore.  Freedom Caucus members made clear their intent to vote down the bill, and Paul Ryan pulled the emergency brakes. No vote was taken.   

Trump’s alleged genius for closing a deal? You might call it the emperor’s new close.

Donald Trump is not the first President to experience an embarrassing setback early in his Presidency. John F. Kennedy endured the humiliation of the Bay of Pigs, and Bill Clinton had his very own healthcare fiasco. Both of those men, however, seemed to have been humbled, tempered, and to have learned something from the experience. 

Trump, on the other hand, immediately expressed an infantile desire to get even with the Freedom Caucus, putting their members on the same standing with Democrats in – what else? – a venomous tweet:

“@realDonaldTrump
The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don't get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!”

Freedom Caucus members then delightedly took turns going twit for twat with the tweetle-dumb and ever-dumber President. Justin Amash’s tweet reeked of schadenfreude: “No shame, Mr. President. Almost everyone succumbs to the D.C. Establishment.” Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee was tickled by Trump’s primary threat: “In my district, we’re very conservative so if he gets me out of office, he’s going to get someone more conservative than me.” 

The fork in the road appears to already be firmly wedged into a body cavity that will cause Trump ever growing discomfort. 

He has already painted himself into a corner on healthcare. The Freedom Caucus can rightly claim that they called his bluff and won, so they see no need to go back to the bargaining table. And if Trump tries to go to get votes from the Democrats, he is going to find that they are open to modifying Obamacare but that any bill that involves a repeal of Obamacare is DOA. It seems that Trump has not only bungled healthcare, but did so in a way that makes any attempt to re-open the debate futile.

Next on the horizon are the big debates about the Federal budget, and Trump has made his one trillion dollar infrastructure investment and the Mexican border wall two essential investments. Good luck getting those through the tax tightwads in the newly empowered Freedom Caucus. The Democrats may actually play ball on the infrastructure investment, but perhaps only if the Wall gets killed in the deal. And so goes another major campaign promise.

Perhaps the only good news for Donald Trump in his savagely cruel month of March is that he has made such towering mistakes so early in his presidency that he actually has time to learn, to change course, to change tactics, to change people, and to change his style.  

But admission of error, remorse, reconsideration, change, and learning are not among the character traits we have seen thus far in Donald Trump.

Rather, it appears that Trump colossally bungled his signature legislative initiative, and managed to do so in a way that may have created a permanent Catch 22 in his overall agenda: he must allow either the extreme conservatives or the Democrats to call the shots on major legislative initiatives, or else watch each and every one go down in flames, unable to secure a majority of the House. 

When the history of the Trump Presidency is written, we may well learn that during the legislative explosion that destroyed the healthcare bill, Donald Trump’s inner circle in the White House was utterly consumed in a panic about the daily revelations about the Russian investigation.  We may find out that Trump was barely paying attention to the healthcare bill because he was frantically attempting to do damage control as the radioactive interaction between Trump staffers and the Russian government gradually overheated and began an inextinguishable meltdown before his very eyes. 

Thursday’s news -- that Michael Flynn’s lawyer is seeking immunity for his client, a client who “has a story to tell” – lends still more weight to this theory. Prosecutors only grant immunity if they believe that a lower grade player can definitively finger a higher level criminal. There is only one person more senior to Michael Flynn.

Yes, when the healthcare bill came crashing down, Donald Trump was distracted, inexperienced, and capable only of his immature need to get even. When he came to the fork in the road, he lashed out at a group of people that he will need desperately… certainly to achieve his legislative agenda, and perhaps to stave off a vote of impeachment. 

Perhaps T.S. Eliot’s assessment in a different Wasteland – “April is the cruelest month” – may prove prescient, as the downward spiral accelerates.

But for now, Donald Trump is impaled on his fork in the road, and it must hurt like crazy.

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