Washington: Measured against past meltdowns, Friday’s humiliating healthcare defeat should have sparked savage finger-pointing and name calling.
Instead it’s as though shock has numbed political instincts in the White House and the GOP leadership.
The presidential Twitter accounts are idling, rather than in overdrive. And instead of score-settling leaks, White House aides busied themselves on Sunday insisting a Saturday tweet by President Donald Trump, which was read in many quarters as a jab at House Speaker Paul Ryan, was anything but.
The usual parade of GOP talking heads emerged for the Sunday morning TV talk shows. But dire prognostications by some after just 65 days of this presidency were left to hang in the ether. There was no real fightback, no serious counter punches – just a whole lot of handwringing acknowledging a crisis that, for now at least, seems to have stumped the party.
“I don’t know that we could pass a Mother’s Day resolution right now,” Florida Republican lawmaker Matt Gaetz said before offering a doomsday scenario in which Democrats might win enough seats in the 2018 midterm elections to seek Trump’s impeachment.
It is not surprising that administration insiders described Trump as “tired in every way, including in spirit ??? a weariness about him that had not been present a day earlier” as he retired to the White House residence on Friday evening.
The healthcare debacle had come on top of him being stymied twice by the courts on his attempted migration and refugee crackdowns, and on the sacking of national security adviser Mike Flynn.
This is not how it was meant to be.
In his book The Art of the Deal, Trump boasts: “Deals are my art form. Other people paint beautifully on canvas or write wonderful poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals. That’s how I get my kicks.”
At various stages of the 2016 election campaign and more recently, he promised a healthcare deal that would be “unbelievable”, “beautiful”, “terrific”, “less expensive and much better”.
In a speech to last year’s GOP convention, he famously declared: “I alone can fix it.”
And he claimed on Friday to a gaggle of reporters in the Oval Office that he had “never said repeal and replace [Obamacare] within 64 days” was at odds with a February 2016 tweet, “We will immediately repeal and replace Obamacare – and nobody can do that like me. We will save $’s and have much better healthcare!”
The nub of the problem that has seemingly left the administration speechless is this – if Trump could not close the deal with a fractious GOP congressional conference on a historically difficult issue such as healthcare, how can he convince it to back his huge plans for tax reform and infrastructure investment?
Few were happy with a GOP healthcare bill that seemed to become politics for politics sake, rather than a genuine effort to rewrite a major piece of legislation. Trump’s first reaction to its demise was to blame Democrats who refused to support it.
Yet when Congress voted on Obamacare seven years earlier, no Republicans voted for that bill.
In his weekly address to the nation on Saturday, Trump didn’t even mention healthcare.
By Sunday, Trump had turned on the GOP’s Freedom Caucus, which had refused to back the Republican bill, despite the President’s relentless lobbying, cajoling and bullying to have the 30-odd members of the caucus fall into line. In his only tweet for the day, he said: “Democrats are smiling in DC that the Freedom Caucus, with the help of Club for Growth and Heritage, have saved Planned Parenthood & O[bama]care.”
But if the Freedom Caucus was discomforted, it did not strike back.
Arkansas Senator and Trump supporter Tom Cotton argued on CBS’s Face the Nation that defeat was about more than the Freedom Caucus, saying: “The problem is not with a specific faction in the House, it’s with the bill.”
Trump supporters acknowledged too that taming the Washington political beast remains a challenge for Trump.
His budget director Mick Mulvaney told NBC’s Meet the Press: “We haven’t been able to change Washington in the first 65 days.”
His chief of staff Reince Priebus told Fox News Sunday: “At the end of the day, I believe it’s time for the party to start governing ??? I think the President’s disappointed in a number of people that he thought were loyal to him that weren’t.”
And, in the minutes after Friday’s defeat, House Speaker and author of the doomed healthcare bill Paul Ryan told reporters: “Moving from an opposition party to a governing party comes with growing pains ??? and, well, we’re feeling those growing pains today.”
Michael Steele, a former Republican National Committee chairman injected a sense of urgency into the debate: “Your base walked away from [the bill], the White House wouldn’t own it, and the leadership was caught flat-footed,” he told Politico magazine.
“What I hope is that folks sober up to what this episode says about our readiness to govern. Because come Monday morning, the country’s going to want you to have some answers to some things, and you better be prepared.”
Former House speaker and Trump loyalist Newt Gingrich was not so gloomy.
Refusing to accept that Trump would be hobbled by the healthcare setback, he predicted that the impending appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and Friday’s reversal of the previous administration’s order to halt the controversial Keystone XL pipeline would be cheered by Trump’s supporters.
“He was the President this morning. He will be the President tomorrow. He has all the advantages that that implies,” Gingrich said. “He’s having a better presidency than anybody in the Washington media thinks.”
Left out of that equation is that, as Trump moves ahead with the rest of his agenda – winding back Obama era environmental regulations, building a border wall and more – his opponents in Congress, the community and in an army of activist lobbies will have learnt from the healthcare crisis that the game can be played against this President.
Resistance may have taken on new meaning.