If you went into a lab to design a terrible week for the Trump administration, you would have a hard time topping what just happened.
In brief review: The administration released an “update” on tax reform that included basically nothing new; the freshly hired communications director was quoted using colorful expletives to eviscerate two of the president’s top aides; the seven-year effort to repeal and replace Obamacare and deliver on the president’s top campaign promise collapsed in spectacular fashion; and second-quarter growth came in short of expectations and well off Trump’s promise of 3 percent-plus growth for years to come.
This was not a big week for making America great again.
The biggest loss by far came early Friday when the Senate, thanks largely to Arizona Republican John McCain’s dramatic “no” vote, failed in its effort to pass a “skinny” Obamacare repeal and send the bill to the House for further negotiations.
Trump exhorted Republicans on Thursday night to advance the bill. They rebuked him. And after promising over and over again on the campaign trail that he would replace Obamacare as soon as he took office, the president is left with nothing. Obamacare remains the law of the land and is likely to stay that way.
There are many reasons for this, including the complete lack of Republican consensus on what to do on health care despite having seven years to come up with a plan. The GOP, including the president, also made no sustained effort to explain their plans on health care to the public. They couldn’t do this, in part, because they didn’t really have any plan.
And in the end, Obamacare wound up being far more popular than any of the GOP’s multiple efforts at repeal. The Affordable Care Act broke over 50 percent popularity for the first time in the Gallup poll in April, jumping to 55 percent. A Kaiser poll in July found that 61 percent of Americans opposed GOP efforts to repeal the ACA.
In the end, the Obamacare failure will probably be good for the GOP, which faced the prospect of tens of millions losing insurance and others facing higher premiums and deductibles. Expanded entitlement programs like the ACA are often unpopular when first passed and then much more popular when people begin to rely on them.
But in the short term, Trump just suffered a humiliating political defeat. His new approach, telegraphed on Twitter, is to let Obamacare marketplaces collapse. But that’s not politically tenable either as Republicans would almost certainly shoulder the blame.
The only path forward now is a bipartisan approach to shoring up the exchanges. Perhaps down the road, Trump will be able to claim he cut a deal with Democrats to “save” health care. That’s his best option. But Democrats may not go along without exacting serious concessions.