As the Republican health-care bill was collapsing, the president was golfing. (Public policy isn't about him.)by Timothy L. O'Brien
"If we don't do this we're in trouble," Trump told his dinner guests, according to Politico's Josh Dawsey. “We have the Senate, House and White House, and we have to do it or we’re going to look terrible.”
Shortly after dinner ended, Republican senators began abandoning the legislation that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to force on them. That turn of events ultimately launched POTUS on a series of Twitter posts arguing that everyone but him was responsible for the debacle. Why take to Twitter? Because things did, indeed, "look terrible."
An obsession with how things "look" -- and not the substance of how things "are" or how things "work" -- has been a hallmark of Trump's brief White House tenure, as it has of his much longer waltz on the public stage as a businessman and celebrity.
That's why, time and again, the president fumbles or changes course on policy, as he scrambles to preserve the impression that he continues to hold the winning hand. Along the way, he glides above the wreckage he creates for voters dependent upon him, for a political party currently held captive by him, and for his own, oft-stated desire to get things done in Washington. (Here's a list, from March, of 68 times that Trump promised he'd repeal Obamacare.)
Trump always jumps into the fray when he realizes, sometimes belatedly, that his public standing as a "winner" is threatened. Absent that peril, he lacks the patience, insight and interest to deal with the architecture of public policies such as health care. He also lacks the energy and political know-how to use the powers of the presidency effectively when key parts of his agenda are in play.
The president had legislative aides monitoring Senate maneuvers, and presumably they kept him informed about a potential meltdown. But the White House is also stocked with neophytes, many of whom aren't much better at this politics stuff than their boss.
One might think that Trump, having suffered through the embarrassment of an ill-fated health-care bill in the House, would have placed his shoulder more forcefully behind the Senate's effort. But where was the president over the weekend? He was playing golf at the Bedminster, New Jersey course he owns and treats like a home. He also took the time to tweet a bunch of advertisements for a professional tournament his business hosts there:
Presidents who have understood the power of their office and how to deploy it effectively and momentously -- from George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, through the Roosevelts, and on to Ronald Reagan -- wouldn’t have dared being as remote and as feckless as Trump.
"If you are a great leader you are inevitably thinking in terms of larger ends," Lyndon Johnson's biographer, Robert Caro, has said of the presidency. Examining the relentless cajoling, arm-twisting and parliamentary maneuvering LBJ used to get the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, Caro said Johnson combined "emotion" and "passion" with "political genius" to get the votes he needed.
Nothing in Caro's observation is partisan or ideological. It's simply a prescription for running a White House that has impact, and for being the steward of a presidency with significance.
Confronted with the reality that passage of the Civil Rights Act would doom Democrats politically in the South for a generation or more, LBJ, a Democrat and a Texan, famously replied: "Well, what the hell's the presidency for?"
How would Trump respond to that question? If his role in the unraveling of the Republican health-care bill is any guide, one of his answers might be, "It's there for the taking and it needn't be for anything other than making me heard and allowing me to stroll into the history books."
That suggests that even though mothballing Obamacare has been a Trump talking point for months, he can live with his failure to do so. And that also explains why Trump now says he just wants to let Obamacare collapse.
Trump has also failed, thus far, to make good on other campaign promises such as a big tax cut, imposing robust sanctions on trading partners like China, building The Wall and starting to upgrade the nation's infrastructure.
He could evolve, of course. But expecting remorse or reflection that might lead him toward greater political commitment and magnanimity is a misunderstanding of what has always animated his thinking and actions. Unless the subject is Trump, he doesn't care too deeply about outcomes.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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