The Take: Trump needs a time­out

His first big leg­isla­tive fight was a de­feat. Does he re­cal­i­brate or plow ahead?

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - dan.balz@wash­post.com

Sixty-five days do not ul­ti­mately de­fine a pres­i­dency, es­pe­cially the first 65 of a new pres­i­dent’s first term. That’s as true for Pres­i­dent Trump as for other pres­i­dents who suf­fered early set­backs. But with­out some se­ri­ous stock­tak­ing in­side the White House after the failed ef­fort to re­place the Af­ford­able Care Act, there could be more trou­ble ahead for the most un­ortho­dox pres­i­dent of mod­ern times.

The de­ba­cle Trump and the Repub­li­can Party just ex­pe­ri­enced is no doubt an es­pe­cially sear­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for a pres­i­dent whose self-im­age de­pends on suc­cesses and who bragged on the cam­paign trail that he would pro­duce so many vic­to­ries in of­fice that peo­ple would get “tired of win­ning.”

In his Oval Of­fice re­marks after Repub­li­cans pulled the health-care bill Fri­day af­ter­noon, he said he had learned some lessons from the process that pro­duced such a ma­jor de­feat. The next weeks and months will demon­strate whether that was empty talk or some­thing real — and whether he and the Repub­li­cans can make the tran­si­tion from op­po­si­tion party to govern­ing ma­jor­ity.

The pres­i­dent has an op­por­tu­nity to ad­just, adapt and ul­ti­mately to re­cover, if he’s pre­pared to un­der­take a sober anal­y­sis of what hap­pened on health care, and more broadly, how to op­er­ate as pres­i­dent. Ul­ti­mately, the pres­i­dency is about more than sign­ing ex­ec­u­tive or­ders, hold­ing lis­ten­ing ses­sions in the White House or tak­ing the show on the road for cam­paign-style ral­lies be­fore bois­ter­ous crowds of de­voted sup­port­ers.

Pres­i­dent Trump has tried to set a fast pace in his first months in of­fice, mov­ing from is­sue to is­sue with break­neck speed as he sought to demon­strate that he was keep­ing his cam­paign prom­ises. It was al­most as if he in­tended to prove that he would keep them all by the end of his first 100 days in of­fice. In­stead, he has taken only par­tial steps at best, rack­ing up a re­port card of mostly in­com­pletes.

Save for his nom­i­na­tion of Judge Neil Gor­such to the Supreme Court, which has been from start to near-fin­ish the smoothest un­der­tak­ing of the ad­min­is­tra­tion, the in­ven­tory of his first months in of­fice in­cludes few true suc­cess sto­ries and cer­tainly no im­por­tant leg­isla­tive achieve­ments. Mean­while, the pres­i­dency is clouded by the FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the al­leged Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 elec­tion and pos­si­ble links be­tween Trump as­so­ciates and Rus­sians.

The health-care fight high­lighted one of the ba­sic con­tra­dic­tions of Trump’s pres­i­dency. He and the Repub­li­can Party have never been on the same page, and the long-stand­ing ten­sions be­tween Trump and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) sym­bol­ize those dif­fer­ences. The two men seem­ingly worked to­gether as best they could dur­ing the health-care fight. They had no other choice.

Both said nice things about the other in the wake of the de­feat. But the back­ground snip­ing from Trump al­lies to­ward Ryan con­tin­ues, led by Bre­it­bart News, which was once un­der the lead­er­ship of Stephen K. Ban­non, the White House chief strate­gist and se­nior coun­selor. It is a re­minder that the Trump-Ryan re­la­tion­ship is a po­lit­i­cal mar­riage that will re­main frag­ile at best. Ryan’s agenda has never been Trump’s agenda. Trump’s pri­mary con­stituency, grounded in the alien­ations and as­pi­ra­tions of mid­dle-aged and older white work­ing-class vot­ers, is not the same as that of Ryan and es­tab­lish­ment Repub­li­cans.

A pres­i­dent ben­e­fits from hav­ing a strong speaker and vice versa, as for­mer pres­i­dent Barack Obama and then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi proved. So Trump and Ryan will be in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked for as long as both hold their of­fices. The ques­tion is the de­gree to which Trump de­cides to change the terms of that al­liance.

Trump won the elec­tion with sig­nif­i­cant sup­port from con­ven­tional Repub­li­can vot­ers, but the an­i­mat­ing mes­sage of his can­di­dacy was any­thing but Repub­li­can or­tho­doxy. In­stead, it was an anti-es­tab­lish­ment, na­tion­al­ist pop­ulism, best ar­tic­u­lated over time by Ban­non but also in­stinc­tively em­braced by can­di­date Trump in his early cam­paign.

Whether on trade or im­mi­gra­tion or Amer­ica’s place in the world, can­di­date Trump was at odds with the party whose nom­i­na­tion he cap­tured. But the early days of his ad­min­is­tra­tion seemed more an ex­pres­sion of the kind of con­ven­tional con­ser­vatism that he de­mol­ished. The health-care fight high­lighted some of the con­flicts in­her­ent in those dif­fer­ences.

Can­di­date Trump and his cam­paign team never pro­duced a se­ri­ous plan to re­peal and re­place Oba­macare. His prom­ise to get rid of Oba­macare was a po­lit­i­cal ral­ly­ing cry and lit­tle more. But to the ex­tent that he was asked about his pri­or­i­ties for health care, he of­ten em­pha­sized his de­sire to see ev­ery­one cov­ered. “In­sur­ance for ev­ery­one,” he told The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Robert Costa in Jan­uary.

In of­fice, whether by de­sign, in­dif­fer­ence or be­cause his ad­min­is­tra­tion was dis­or­ga­nized, he ceded sub­stan­tive con­trol of the health-care ef­fort to Ryan and con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans, who even­tu­ally were joined by Vice Pres­i­dent Pence and Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­re­tary Tom Price. They pro­duced leg­is­la­tion that struck at parts of Trump’s most loyal con­stituency.

But Trump never seemed to care about the de­tails of the com­plex mea­sure. He spent hours ca­jol­ing and cheer­lead­ing but could not close the deal. In the end, lack­ing a sub­stan­tive case, and with con­ces­sions to hard-line con­ser­va­tives caus­ing alarm among more mod­er­ate con­ser­va­tives in swing dis­tricts, his only ar­gu­ment was that this bill was too im­por­tant to fail. When it col­lapsed, he blamed the Democrats for the de­feat, although he never made an over­ture to any­one in the op­po­si­tion party.

Now he is left to pick up the pieces and plot a new strat­egy. On health care, he tweeted Satur­day, “Oba­macare will ex­plode and we will all get to­gether and piece to­gether a great health­care plan for THE PEO­PLE. Do not worry.” Per­haps he can even­tu­ally reach ac­com­mo­da­tion with Democrats on a bill to re­pair the ACA, although they may not be anx­ious to throw him a life­line right now and it’s ques­tion­able how many House Repub­li­cans would go along.

The pres­i­dent in­di­cated Fri­day that he is ea­ger to move to tax re­form, but tax re­form is no less com­plex than health care — per­haps even more com­pli­cated with­out pas­sage of the health­care bill. Some Repub­li­cans are sug­gest­ing he should look for a bi­par­ti­san path by com­bin­ing a mas­sive in­fra­struc­ture ini­tia­tive with a ma­jor tax cut, at­tract­ing both Democrats and Repub­li­cans. That raises the ob­vi­ous ques­tion of whether Democrats would co­op­er­ate with a now-weak­ened pres­i­dent.

His other chal­lenge could be keep­ing Repub­li­cans in line. His bud­get al­ready has run into prob­lems, and as con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans look to­ward 2018, they will act in their own self­in­ter­est rather than the pres­i­dent’s.

For a host of rea­sons, he has had a rocky start. It is not in Trump’s style to change course or habits. He has al­ways be­lieved he knows bet­ter than the con­ven­tional politi­cians he de­feated in the elec­tion. But what might have worked in the cam­paign has not worked so well from the White House so far.

Trump gov­erns as the leader of a di­vided party in a na­tion di­vided. He has failed to broaden his sup­port and there­fore has no po­lit­i­cal safety net. The health­care de­ba­cle pro­vides a po­lit­i­cal cir­cuit breaker for the new ad­min­is­tra­tion, an event calami­tous enough to make even the most self-con­fi­dent of lead­ers stop and ask what hap­pened — and what, if any­thing, can be done to set a fresh course.

CAR­LOS BARRIA/REUTERS

Pres­i­dent Trump, Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­re­tary Tom Price, left, and Vice Pres­i­dent Pence, right, pushed hard for the House Repub­li­cans’ health-care bill. Now they must con­sider the lessons to be drawn from the mea­sure’s de­feat.

Dan Balz THE SUN­DAY TAKE

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