Off to the Races

Trump’s Uncertain Next Move

After the health bill’s collapse, the president must decide whether to keep courting conservatives, or shift his sights to Democrats.

President Trump holds up one of various bills he signed in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Monday.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
March 27, 2017, 8 p.m.

With Fri­day’s col­lapse of the Re­pub­lic­an ef­fort to de­cap­it­ate Pres­id­ent Obama’s Af­ford­able Care Act, it would be an un­der­state­ment to say that the GOP is in dis­ar­ray.

There isn’t much of a de­fense against the charge that after vot­ing more than 60 times over sev­en years to re­peal Obama­care, they couldn’t come up with any­thing to re­place it that could pass the House, let alone the Sen­ate, when the vote really coun­ted. A sub­stan­tial ele­ment of the very con­ser­vat­ive House Free­dom Caucus didn’t think the Amer­ic­an Health Care Act was enough of an im­prove­ment on the much-re­viled Obama­care, while a num­ber of Re­pub­lic­an mod­er­ates and mem­bers in swing dis­tricts felt that it was too dra­coni­an.

Much of the blame is fo­cused on the Free­dom Caucus, a group that many say wouldn’t take yes for an an­swer. The truth is that for many of the most con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers of the House (and a few in the Sen­ate), their view of the role of gov­ern­ment is so min­im­al­ist that many would prefer the gov­ern­ment just get out of the health care busi­ness al­to­geth­er. Al­most any­thing ac­cept­able to this bloc of con­ser­vat­ives would have a very dif­fi­cult time gath­er­ing enough sup­port from the cen­ter to pass. This situ­ation is hardly unique to ad­dress­ing the prob­lems in Obama­care that clearly ex­ist to all but the most par­tis­an of Demo­crats. It is a scen­ario that may well play out on oth­er vi­tal is­sues as well.

Lo­gic would sug­gest that the dir­ec­tion House Speak­er Paul Ry­an and Pres­id­ent Trump should go on many fu­ture le­gis­lat­ive en­deavors is to write off the Free­dom Caucus and ac­com­mod­ate those in the middle—mod­er­ate and/or swing-dis­trict Re­pub­lic­ans, and per­haps some Demo­crats too. Billy Moore, who served as chief of staff for two South­ern House Demo­crat­ic mem­bers after a stint with Sen. Lloyd Bent­sen, points out that there is a long his­tory of cent­rist co­ali­tions on le­gis­la­tion, from the North Amer­ic­an Fair Trade Agree­ment to more re­cent deals on ap­pro­pri­ations meas­ures, par­tic­u­larly con­fer­ence re­ports, after each side has com­pleted their ini­tial par­tis­an pos­tur­ing. These oc­ca­sions just don’t get a lot of me­dia at­ten­tion.

An­oth­er vet­er­an of the Wash­ing­ton wars, Bill Sweeney, points to times when Pres­id­ent Jimmy Carter couldn’t pla­cate lib­er­als on some is­sues, so he pivoted to the cen­ter—to mod­er­ate and South­ern Demo­crats, along with some of the lib­er­al-to-mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans who were more nu­mer­ous in those days. The chal­lenge then, ac­cord­ing to Sweeney, who served at the time as ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, was that it meant that they (Demo­crats) presen­ted them­selves in 1980 as the cent­rists but in real­ity didn’t stand for any­thing sat­is­fact­ory to the Left or the Right. In any case, Sweeney ar­gues that today, Con­gress be­haves in a far more par­lia­ment­ary fash­ion, mak­ing such moves more dif­fi­cult to ac­com­plish.

With an al­most total ab­sence of con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crats and thin­ning ranks of mod­er­ate Demo­crats on one hand, and an al­most mil­it­ant anti-Trump at­ti­tude among House Demo­crats on the oth­er, there is a strong dis­in­cent­ive for any Demo­crats to co­oper­ate with the pres­id­ent or do any­thing that might even in­dir­ectly be­ne­fit his agenda. Moore sug­gests that while mod­er­ate Demo­crats come from di­verse dis­tricts and many have a mul­ti­tude of pet is­sues, it might be sim­pler for Trump to try to cut a deal with mem­bers of the Con­gres­sion­al Black Caucus, who in my view tend to be more fo­cused in their pri­or­it­ies. Strik­ing a deal that ad­dresses their urb­an-dis­trict agenda might ac­tu­ally be easi­er than try­ing to ac­com­mod­ate oth­er Demo­crats who want too many dif­fer­ent things.

What has to make Free­dom Caucus mem­bers and oth­er con­ser­vat­ives in Con­gress nervous is a pas­sage in con­gres­sion­al chron­icler Robert Draper’s Sunday New York Times Magazine piece en­titled “Trump vs. Con­gress: Now What?” Draper writes:

When I spoke with Trump, I ven­tured that, based on avail­able evid­ence, it seemed as though con­ser­vat­ives prob­ably shouldn’t hold their breath for the next four years ex­pect­ing en­ti­tle­ment re­form. Trump’s reply was im­me­di­ate. “I think you’re right,” he said. In fact, Trump seemed much less an­im­ated by the sub­ject of budget cuts than the sub­ject of spend­ing in­creases. “We’re also go­ing to prime the pump,” he said. “You know what I mean by ‘prime the pump’? In or­der to get [the eco­nomy] go­ing, and go­ing big league, and hav­ing the jobs com­ing in and the taxes that will be cut very sub­stan­tially and the reg­u­la­tions that’ll be go­ing, we’re go­ing to have to prime the pump to some ex­tent. In oth­er words: Spend money to make a lot more money in the fu­ture. And that’ll hap­pen.” A clear­er elu­cid­a­tion of Keyne­sian lib­er­al­ism could not have been de­livered by Obama.

That’s enough to chill the spine of con­ser­vat­ives, put­ting them back in the po­s­i­tion of either op­pos­ing Trump on philo­soph­ic­al grounds and po­ten­tially ali­en­at­ing many Re­pub­lic­an voters who—polls show—over­whelm­ingly still ap­prove of the pres­id­ent’s per­form­ance, or com­prom­ising their lim­ited-gov­ern­ment val­ues.

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