(CNN)A President who admires strongmen tried to strong-arm the Republicans who control the United States House of Representatives. Pass the repeal of Obamacare and replace it with Trumpcare, Donald Trump told the 247 Republicans, or else you’ll be ousted in a primary.
When that failed to move them sufficiently he added another threat: Vote with me or you’ll never get another chance at health care reform.
The Republicans gathered for an emotional pre-vote caucus in the basement of the Capitol. As they departed, many said it was one of the most impressive conferences they had ever attended. But when House Speaker Paul Ryan offered little more than a brief statement and dashed off without answering reporters’ questions, the signs of defeat were apparent.
Having practiced his usual method of deal-making, Trump then walked away from the hard work of political negotiating. White House spokesman Sean Spicer, insisting there was no “plan B,” predicted victory. While Ryan tried to get his House in order, the President climbed into a big-rig tractor parked outside the White House, sounded the horn like an excited boy and pretended he was driving. (He hadn’t looked so happy in weeks.)
Despite all these expressions of confidence, the Republicans who run Washington never could come together behind Trumpcare. Hours before the vote, The Daily Beast reported that, according to officials in the administration who spoke on condition of anonymity, Trump’s top adviser, Steve Bannon, wanted him to make a list of his House GOP enemies so they might be punished.
When this last tough-guy tactic failed, Trump and Ryan slammed on the brakes and canceled the showdown vote. CNN and other networks reported the debacle in real time and both men were left humiliated and diminished.
No one should be surprised that Trump’s first big legislative initiative collapsed in a cloud of chaos. Aside from the development of his enormous ego, nothing in Donald Trump’s life experience prepared him to actually function as president of the United States.
This became evident during the presidential transition, when he proved incapable of bringing the country together and then, upon his inauguration, when he immediately began offering lies and distortions about everything from the size of the crowd at the inauguration to the claim that the recent election was marred by massive voter fraud.
The most remarkable thing about the Trump presidency may be our expectation that he would be any different.
Trump first demonstrated his penchant for distortion and deception as a young man when he bragged about his accomplishments before he had any. Despite four massive corporate bankruptcies, each involving complex enterprises that required real executive skills, Trump insisted he was a great business leader.
What he was, in fact, was a successful entrepreneur who led family-held companies that he could direct like a monarch. He was THE BOSS and anyone who disagreed with him knew where to find the door.
The trouble for President Trump, who made repeal-and-replace of Obamacare one of his big campaign promises, is that he cannot fire anyone in Congress.
Indeed, only the voters can fire a member of the House of Representatives and if the latest polls are to be believed, very few of those voters liked Trumpcare. Perhaps it was the part of the bill that would push 24 million of them off the health insurance rolls that they didn’t like. Or maybe it was the part of the law that eliminated all those coverage requirements for policies including pregnancy care, drug benefits and mental health coverage.
House members, who must seek re-election every two years, understood this and were far more afraid of facing angry constituents than dealing with a President whose approval rating is now 37%.
As bad as Trump’s retreat on his bill seemed as it was occurring, it seems worse as the minutes and hours have passed and we can reflect on how the defeat contrasts with the Trump image. This is a man who celebrates himself as a dynamic winner of incomparable abilities. “Only I can fix” them, he said of America’s problems during the campaign.
In his estimation, all those governors and legislators who ran against him in the primaries, were, like President Obama, losers and failures. Of course most of the others who sought the Republican nomination in 2016 were successful in government before they ran. And don’t forget how that loser Obama managed to get his health care bill passed.
What does it say about Trump that when he put himself on the line and tried to get his first piece of major legislation passed, he came up looking like an incompetent?
First, it says that Trump lacks an understanding of how the legislative system works and probably ignored those around him who do. Second, he lacks a leadership style suited to dealing with hundreds of members of Congress who are each powerful political figures in their own districts. Finally, and most importantly, we can see that he does not possess the temperament of presidents like Johnson, Reagan and Clinton who respected the process and loved it.
The flimsy bill that Trump and Ryan put forward and the clumsy way they went about seeking votes suggest they lacked real conviction.
What happens next? If past is prologue, Trump will blame everyone but himself. Ryan should come in for a heap of recrimination, mostly from administration figures speaking to reporters under cover of anonymity.
Eventually, perhaps sooner than later — and despite his protestations to the contrary — Trump will try again. The trouble is that Congress has demonstrated that Trump’s usual way of leading through intimidation won’t work. And he hasn’t shown that he knows another way.