After just nine weeks in the Oval Office, Donald Trump is already forced to resort to his third book, “The Art of the Comeback.”
From James Comey’s artfully cloaked shiv in last Monday’s congressional testimony to the head-for-the-lifeboats abandonment of Trumpcare on Friday, it is hard to recall a president who has had a worse week without someone being indicted.
In his boastful 1997 book about his comeback in real estate, Trump chortles, “During the bad times, I learned who was loyal and who wasn’t. I believe in an eye for an eye. A couple of people who betrayed me need my help now, and I am screwing them against the wall!”
From just the health care debacle alone, Trump can compile a Nixon-sized enemies list.
Should he blame the conservative purists in the House Freedom Caucus or skittish Republicans from swing districts unwilling to sacrifice their careers for an ungainly bill unlikely to survive Senate scrutiny?
Then there is the ineptitude of Speaker Paul Ryan who has discovered the folly of letting himself be drafted as John Boehner’s successor.
In the hours before Ryan pulled the bill Friday afternoon, the tired rhetoric on the House floor from both parties underscored how exhausted congressional speechwriters must be from the never-ending health care debate. C-SPAN viewers were treated to lines like California Democrat Anna Eshoo overemoting, “This is a life or death situation” and Michigan Republican Fred Upton declaring, “This bill is the only train leaving the station.”
Or shot in the foot …
Surprisingly enough, there was one literary reference that conveyed the reality of the governing style of Trump and the House Republicans. Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat, invoked the great newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin, who died this month. Neal cited the title of Breslin’s 1969 mob novel, “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” before adding, “That’s what this institution has been like for the last 10 days.”
No matter how the Alternative Facts Brigade at the White House tries to spin it, this defeat rests at the feet of the new president.
Trump could have balked when Ryan proposed making Obamacare repeal the centerpiece of the GOP legislative agenda. Instead, Trump put his bulldozer dreams of spending big on infrastructure aside to pretend to be an orthodox Republican. The result is that it is impossible to recall another president who suffered such a major legislative defeat from his own party so early in his presidency.
For all the glib talk of Trump’s deal-making skills, the president, in truth, had little to offer. Certainly, no one expected Trump — who sometimes appears to forget that there are three branches of government — to come up with useful policy guidance. With Trump’s approval rating dipping as low as 37 percent, few legislators facing difficult re-election races are likely to want to bask in the warm glow of a presidential embrace.
Yet Trump’s threats seem equally empty. During a Tuesday pilgrimage to Capitol Hill, Trump warned Mark Meadows, who heads the Freedom Caucus, “Mark, I’m going to come after you.”
Sean Spicer, whose word is always his bond, insisted that the laugh-a-minute president was joking. But it was easy to hear a threat of a Trump-backed primary challenge in Meadows’ North Carolina district.
Except that Meadows and other anti-Trumpcare conservatives have been inoculated by the Koch Brothers.
The conservative billionaires announced this week the formation of a fund that would help bankroll the re-election of any Republican who broke with the president on health care. One wrinkle of the super PAC era is that a president and his party can no longer bludgeon rebellious legislators into submission by cutting off their campaign money.
Aside from Democrats, probably the happiest political figures Friday were Dean Heller and Jeff Flake, the only GOP senators facing tough re-election battles in 2018. Both Heller (Nevada) and Flake (Arizona) represent states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare. The apparent failure of the House bill means that Heller and Flake may never have to vote on legislation that trims health coverage under Medicaid.
The new fantasy in Trumpland is that somehow the Democrats will be blamed if Obamacare goes into the death spiral that Republicans have been gleefully forecasting. As Trump put in a Washington Post interview with Robert Costa on Friday, “The beauty … is that [the Democrats] own Obamacare. So when it explodes, they come to us, and we make one beautiful deal for the people.”
What Trump fails to grasp is that a president owns everything that happens when he is in the White House. Voters may not understand the intricacies of health care legislation. But they do understand that the Republicans control the White House and Congress. And, if something fails, the responsibility to fix it rests with the party that controls the levers of power.
The failure of Trumpcare raises the possibility that the eventual confirmation of Neil Gorsuch will represent the sum total of the new president’s legislative victories this year. The drive for tax cuts badly needed the $337 billion in budget savings that were embedded in the original GOP health care bill. And Democrats — with a visceral hatred of Trump and sensing his political weakness — are less and less likely to cooperate on infrastructure spending.
At the end of “The Art of the Comeback,” Trump burbles, “Work hard and don’t allow yourself to understand the meaning of the word defeat. Above all, enjoy what you’re doing, and the only thing you’ll have is victory, victory, victory!”
It’s really that simple with a leader like Trump. Just ask Paul Ryan.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle was just published: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.” Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.