After the failure of Trumpcare in Congress, journalists and politicians on the Left haven’t stopped crowing about the president’s supposed defeat. From Lawrence O’Donnell (“His presidency effectively ended today”) to Charles Blow (“a crushing blow to Trump’s brand”) they seem to have no clue Trump’s opponents have been played.
Will the “experts” never learn? Those of us who oppose his presidency must admit it already: Trump is an immortal politician. His detractors continually gloat that THIS time his career is over – when we heard him insulting POWs, say, or bragging about groping women – and he continues to bulldoze the American political model, barely touched by any of the scandals.
In the case of health care, Trump accomplished many goals at once:
- He can claim he tried to do something. After frequent “repeal and replace” campaign promises, ignoring health care in his first 100 days would have betrayed a slogan that drew constant cheers.
- He undermined the Republicans in Congress. Critics have treated the GOP legislative failure and especially Speaker Paul Ryan’s enfeeblement as evidence of a weakened presidency. Far from it. The Republican Congress is a rival source of power for the president, and their loss increases his potential upside. Benching the articulate, experienced, and telegenic Ryan is an extra point for Trump.
- He picked a fight with the far right. It’s now harder for his detractors to paint him as an extremist, since the far right rejected his health care plan. Demagogues flourish by maintaining the illusion of operating from the middle.
- Most importantly, he doesn’t own the American health care system. When Americans are happy with their health care, they credit their doctors and perhaps their insurance. But when their health care quality, choice, and affordability get worse, they start to blame their politicians. What Trump understands is that in America, health care quality, choice, and affordability always get worse (mostly for structural reasons like lack of transparency and doctors guarding against malpractice claims). Not only won’t his name be on the health care system, but he can respond to complaints with “You’re right. Obamacare is a disaster. I tried to solve the problem, but Congress rejected my plan.”
The president’s low approval ratings mask the extent of his power, because they provide respondents no alternative. Remember, as nominee Trump overcame record-low favorability ratings by making Hillary Clinton even less palatable. And Trump, a master at dueling, thrives on painting his whoever his current antagonist is (“Loser!”) as worse than himself.
Trump can continue to consolidate his power despite Friday’s “defeat” and other purported setbacks because of his solid core of fans whose enthusiasm will surely withstand procedural maneuvers in Washington (the bill wasn’t even defeated; it was withdrawn). More importantly, Trump doesn’t respect our political and constitutional system and breaks political “rules” for sport. The O’Donnells and the Blows are right that under the old system Trump would be toast. But we’re not using a toaster anymore.
Surely Trump is not fazed by Democrats feeling they finally won a battle. As with Holocaust statements and attacks on SNL, the president gains maneuverability when his opponents are distracted by things he doesn’t care about.
And come on, does anyone really think Trump cares about health care? He frets about stopping rising premiums and ensuring people can keep their doctors? Please. Trump chose the health care fight to rally his supporters while demeaning and diminishing enemies like Obama. Friday’s news will not slow Trump’s real priorities like big-handed building projects and xenophobic scapegoating.
For Trump, losing the health care skirmish was a brilliant move that the political and media establishment hasn’t seemed to notice. But all they had to do was listen.
“The best thing that could happen is exactly what happened — watch,” President Trump told The New York Times moments after the death of Trumpcare. The comment has been dismissed as just more delusional bluster from the master of delusional bluster.
But Trump’s very survival suggests he knows what he’s doing. It may take a while for people to realize it, but this time, once again, he won.