For seven years — seven years — Republicans thundered about the evils of Obamacare, yearned for the day when they could bury it and vowed to do precisely that once the ball was in their hands.
Last week proved that this had all been an emotional and theatrical exercise, not a substantive one. The ball was in their hands, and they had no coherent playbook. No real play. They scurried around the Capitol with their chests deflated and their tails between their legs.
For the entirety of his campaign, Donald Trump crowed about his peerless ability to make deals, one of which, he assured us, was going to be a replacement for Obamacare that would cut costs without leaving any Americans in the lurch.
Last week proved that there was no such swap, that he hadn’t done an iota of work to devise one and that he was spectacularly unprepared to shepherd such legislation through Congress. As his promise lay in tatters at his feet, he gave a delusional interview to Time magazine about what an infallible soothsayer he is, then tried to shift the blame to Democrats.
He’s not delivering Americans from cynicism about government. He’s validating that dark assessment, with a huge assist from Paul Ryan and a cast of House Republicans who had consistently portrayed themselves as sober-minded, mature alternatives to those indulgent, prodigal Dems, if only they had a president from their party who would let them work their magic.
They have that president. Behold their magic.
Their exact complaints about the birth of Obamacare became the actual details of the stillbirth of Trumpcare or Ryancare or whatever we’re supposed to call the botch that they came up with.
It was a bill of far-reaching consequence stitched together behind closed doors, with a flurry of last-minute deals struck only to placate holdouts. It was pushed on lawmakers not as essential policy but as essential politics: The president needed a win, and the party had to make good on an incessantly repeated pledge.
“Because we said we would” became the motivating force for the legislation. If that’s the way self-proclaimed grown-ups govern, give me toddlers.
Trump is indeed prophetic. Washington under him doesn’t resemble the same old swamp. It looks like a sandbox. There’s commotion aplenty, noise galore and not much evidence of adult supervision.
What happened last week wasn’t governance. It was petulance. Republicans floundered in their attempts to come up with a replacement for Obamacare because the truth, which they know but refuse to say out loud, is that many of their constituents have benefited from, and have come to depend on, the changes wrought by Obamacare.
That’s not some rose-colored endorsement of what always was a messy, imperfect response to this country’s health care woes. But that’s the fact of the matter, and it’s a principal reason for the confusion and delays of last week. Ryan, Trump and others who had devoted so much oratorical energy to demonizing Obamacare felt that they needed a symbolic victory — any symbolic victory — but discovered that they couldn’t ignore the price.
Some Republican governors, many Republican moderates and voters far and wide were balking. In one Quinnipiac poll, only 17 percent of them said that they favored the emerging Republican alternative to Obamacare, while 56 percent opposed it.
Dazed by developments, the president who had recently opined that “nobody knew that health care could be so complicated” just wanted an end to things. Late Thursday he issued an ultimatum, decreeing that on Friday, the House had to vote on the bill — which had been revised to remove maternity care and mammograms as benefits that insurers had to provide — or forevermore forfeit its chance to do away with Obamacare. The art of the deal devolved into the spectacle of the tantrum.
Then, late Friday, the bill was withdrawn, because it seemed to be a lost cause — barring some miracle. “We’re going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future,” Ryan admitted.
That Trump isn’t good at details and follow-through comes as no surprise. Ryan’s miscalculations are the greater revelation. He knows Congress, purports to know policy and yet produced a wretched bill that smelled as bad to the more centrist members of his caucus as it did to the most conservative ones.
And he moved it to the front of the line, ahead of other initiatives, so that the public’s first glimpse of negotiations between the president and Congress in a government under a single party’s control was an ugly sight indeed.
For the two terms of the Obama presidency, Republicans in Congress perfected their posture as the party of no, becoming so comfortable in that role that they still seem somewhat baffled to find themselves in a new one.
And no isn’t enough, especially not when it comes to Obamacare, which has been around long enough to plant deep roots in American life. There’s no repealing without some replacing, and Republicans were so fixated on the first part of the equation that they never grappled adequately with the second.
Their limited preparation and lack of agreement would matter less if they had strong leadership in the White House. Instead they have Trump, who lashed out at Democrats and pretended that the collapse of the health care bill was some sort of perverse or eventual triumph. There has also been murmuring from his administration about how Ryan led them all astray, and it bodes ill for the Trump-Ryan relationship going forward.
“Convenient how Trump flips from an all-powerful master negotiator to well-intentioned simpleton duped by Snidely Ryan at the drop of a hat,” tweeted the conservative columnist Ben Shapiro.
So very convenient and so very Trump, who manages to strut regardless of circumstances. There’s an inverse relationship between his adoration of himself and the prospects for his presidency. As the latter wanes, the former waxes.
“I assume this is going to be a cover,” he said to Michael Scherer of Time, referring to the interview. “Have I set the record? I guess, right? Covers — nobody’s had more covers.”
Scherer responded that, to the best of his knowledge, “Richard Nixon still has you beat. But he was in office for longer, so give yourself time.”
“O.K., good,” Trump said. “I’m sure I’ll win.”
Just spell his name right, folks. Just put him on the cover. That’s all that matters, and if Nixon is the yardstick, that’s fine, so long as Trump measures bigger.
He assured Scherer that all was swell, telling him, “I’m president and you’re not.”
That’s a rare Trump statement that will survive fact-checking. And that clinches it: If ever we name a poet laureate of the sandbox, the title will be Trump’s.
Reach Bruni on Twitter (@FrankBruni) or Facebook.