One of Barack Obama’s principal arguments in seeking the presidency was that his stance as an outsider uninvolved in past Washington battles would enable him to break through the capital’s pervasive partisanship.
But the neophyte president actually achieved his principal legislative success by hiring experienced Washington operatives who joined with veteran congressional Democrats in passing legislation designed to produce the party’s long-sought goal of health care coverage for all Americans.
After Republicans captured the House in 2010 and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell vowed to prevent Obama’s re-election, gridlock reasserted itself. That helped Donald Trump, even more of an outsider than Obama, sell the notion that his nonpolitical background and business experience could make Washington work again.
But Trump has proved so unknowledgeable and inexperienced, and his White House so inept, that he is damaging rather than helping achieve the stated goals, like repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, on which most Republicans campaigned. In the process, he’s giving inexperience a bad name that hopefully will lead, eventually, to a president better-equipped to do the job.
Between his impolitic comments, often antagonistic attitude toward lawmakers and inability to convey a positive sales message, Trump has undercut — rather than reinforced — efforts by top Republican professionals like House Speaker Paul Ryan and McConnell to achieve their mutual goals. They need help from a functioning White House, like the Democrats did, since they have small majorities, especially McConnell.
The basic problem is that the widening divide between increasingly ideological parties has made governing far more difficult. There are fewer of the pragmatists who once helped presidents like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton form coalitions to enact major measures like tax and welfare reform.
But such office-holders do exist, especially in the Senate and many governorships. The best hope for breaking the current deadlock may lie in concentrating on fixing Obamacare’s problems, rather than aiming for long-sought conservative goals like repealing it and slashing a Medicaid program that is crucial for millions of Americans.
A possible direction was suggested in some little-noticed comments by Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, a former Tennessee governor and chair of the committee that would help write the health measure under normal legislative procedure.
Alexander said he would like to draft legislation geared toward stabilizing the marketplaces and providing a temporary continuation of subsidies paid to insurance companies to offset out-of-pocket medical expenses, The New York Times reported.
That would focus on the most urgent current issues, but would require a more bipartisan approach. That’s been the message of Senate Republicans like Maine’sSusan Collins, Alaska’sLisa Murkowski, Colorado’sCory Gardner, Louisiana’sBill Cassidy, Ohio’sRob Portman and West Virginia’sShelley Moore Capito, who played major roles in delaying McConnell’s bill.
A bipartisan group of governors is pushing a similar message. As first reported by The New York Times’Alexander Burns, they have sought quietly, behind the scenes, to push lawmakers toward a bipartisan compromise and away from a partisan approach that would devastate Medicaid in their states.
Virginia Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the chairman of the National Governors Association, and Massachusetts Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, vice chairman of its health and human services committee, wrote a joint letter urging McConnell to show restraint in seeking a bill.
On the very day he delayed Senate consideration of the GOP measure, Republican Gov. John Kasich of Ohio and Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado held a joint news conference to denounce it. “This bill is unacceptable,” Kasich said, noting it would hurt the poor and the mentally ill and benefit “people who are already wealthy.”
It’s unclear if these outside efforts or the reluctance of more moderate GOP senators will keep McConnell from reaching agreement on some version of the current bill. Complicating his quest, the repeal effort, while supported by the Republican grass roots, is highly unpopular in the country as a whole. Four recent polls show its support ranging from 12 to 27 percent.
If he fails, the growing disruption of the health insurance market may force McConnell to work with the Democrats on a more pragmatic approach like Alexander suggested. That would ultimately require support from the more conservative House — and a decision by the Trump administration to end its inconsistent attitude toward the federal payments that enable many Obamacare recipients to pay their insurance.
Meanwhile, Trump may be giving inexperience such a bad name he ultimately convinces voters the presidency is no job for a neophyte, and that a better course is someone with governing experience. Like Reagan or Clinton.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.