Does Donald Trump have any interest in governing the country? Has he learned anything at all about the legislative process as he’s flailed and failed his way through his first months in office?
Now he faces a critical test that will provide some answers. Senators from both parties have crafted a truly bipartisan bill to shore up the shaky insurance markets created by Obamacare. Conservatives are trying to sabotage the effort by demanding concessions Democrats can never accept.
Will Trump support something that can actually pass? Or will he cave in to the hard-right segment of his party that automatically opposes anything that resembles a reasonable compromise?
So far he’s been all over the lot, encouraging the bipartisan negotiators and then demeaning their efforts as a “bailout” of the insurance companies. In politics, not keeping your word is the surest path to irrelevance, and Trump’s irresponsible behavior led the Washington Post to report, “Lawmakers in both parties consider him an untrustworthy, chronically inconsistent and easily distracted negotiator.”
Trump is deeply committed to pleasing his core supporters, who comprise about one-third of the electorate. But being president is a lot more complicated than being a candidate. Sen. Charles Schumer, the Democratic leader, was correct in saying, “This president cannot govern if, whenever the hard right frightens him and says ‘Jump,’ he says, ‘How high?’”
The arguments in favor of the bipartisan health care bill are compelling. Trump has canceled government payments that subsidize premiums for low-income policyholders. The bill would restore those payments. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the lead Republican author, warns that without legislative action, “there will be chaos in this country and millions of Americans will be hurt.”
Those “millions of Americans” include a lot of Republicans, and Alexander accused the bill’s opponents of putting ideology ahead of reality. “What’s conservative about unaffordable premiums?” he asked on the Senate floor.
The answer is “nothing,” which is why four Republican governors signed a bipartisan letter urging passage of the compromise measure. The letter quoted a warning from the Congressional Budget Office that the president’s actions “would increase premiums by 25 percent by 2020,” and add nearly $200 billion to the national debt.
“As governors,” they wrote, “we deal with the real-life impacts of actions taken in Washington, D.C.” But that’s exactly what Trump refuses to do: deal with “real-life impacts” instead of embracing baseless prejudices.
His argument that premium subsidies, which are mandated by law, would simply enrich insurance companies is an article of faith in conservative circles. But it’s not supported by the facts.
The Washington Post investigated Trump’s claim and found that instead of making money by participating in Obamacare, insurance companies were taking a financial beating. The Post accused Trump of “misleading rhetoric” and awarded him Four Pinocchios, its highest level of dishonesty.
Virtually the entire health care industry backs the compromise bill, and so does the general public. A recent Economist/YouGov poll found that 52 percent want to revive the subsides cut by Trump, while only 21 percent oppose restoration.
There’s a larger point here. The compromise bill is an important experiment in bipartisanship, co-sponsored by a dozen senators from each party who “negotiated in good faith,” as the governors’ letter noted, and produced a measure that involved concessions from both sides.
Republicans agreed to retain the basic architecture of Obamacare. Democrats agreed to give states more flexibility in implementing a system that needs a lot of fixing.
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the lead Democratic negotiator, argued that the bill could set a useful precedent for future legislation. “It sends a powerful message,” she said, “that when members of Congress decide to get past our talking points and take a few steps out of our partisan corners, there is a lot we can agree on and a lot we can get done.”
That’s absolutely true. But the spirit of trust and good faith that makes open-minded negotiations possible is practically extinct in Washington today. As Sen. John McCain, who has a long record of working with the rival party, said recently, “We’ve been spinning our wheels on too many important issues, because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle.”
Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, says he’ll bring the bipartisan bill up for a vote if President Trump promises to sign it. Will Trump be smart enough to do that? Or will he continue to spin his wheels and squander his presidency?