‘Move fast and break things’: Trump’s Obamacare failure and the backlash ahead

Republicans suffered a devastating defeat on Obamacare. But the pulling of the American Health Care Act could be a ‘blessing in disguise’ for Trump

Donald Trump listens to a speaker in the East Room of the White House on Friday.


Donald Trump listens to a speaker in the East Room of the White House on Friday.
Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

‘Move fast and break things’: Trump’s Obamacare failure and the backlash ahead

Republicans suffered a devastating defeat on Obamacare. But the pulling of the American Health Care Act could be a ‘blessing in disguise’ for Trump

The James S Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House was crammed as usual but there was an extra frisson of suspense. As the press secretary, Sean Spicer, walked to the lectern, a conversation was unfolding just 27 paces away in the Oval Office. It would invalidate almost everything he said.

Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House of Representatives, told Donald Trump the news he did not want to hear. Weeks of cajoling and arm-twisting to win over skeptics of their healthcare reform legislation had failed. Ryan asked the president to ditch the bill and avoid the humiliation of putting it to a vote in the House. Trump agreed.

It was a chastening defeat for a president whose election campaign was built on his reputation as a negotiator and a winner. His book, The Art of the Deal, brags: “Deals are my art form. Other people paint beautifully on canvas or write wonderful poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals. That’s how I get my kicks.” When it came to his first major legislation as president and the question “deal or no deal”, the answer was, emphatically, no deal.

In a poetic twist, the president who has espoused a rightwing agenda of economic nationalism, law and order and “America first” was undone by the right wing of his own party. Conservatives said the bill did not go far enough to repeal and replace Barack Obama’s signature healthcare policy, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare.

“Today was a big win for the president. The 44th president, Barack Obama,” declared TV host Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC. “And it was, to put it in Trump-speak, a complete disaster for the current president.”

It came hard on the heels of two legal knock-backs to his attempt to ban travelers from certain Muslim-majority counties. That policy too was imposed with a missionary zeal that masked a lack of competence and grasp of detail. But Trump appears to be playing the role of a chief executive intent on shaking up a business and his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is said to admire a creed from the tech sector in Silicon Valley: “Move fast and break things.”

But Washington politics are different. Add in the Russia affair – the resignation of the president’s national security adviser, groundless claims of wiretapping against Obama and an ongoing FBI investigation into his associates – and the first two months of the Trump presidency reek of chaos, crisis and confusion.

‘Nobody knew healthcare could be this complicated’



Donald Trump lambasts Democrats as Obamacare replacement bill pulled

In his rambunctious election campaign, the 70-year-old novice promised to repeal and replace the ACA “immediately”. It was a bad choice for an opening offensive. Healthcare reform is to American presidents what the Russian winter was to Napoleon. Obama got further than most but even then the notion of an American National Health Service remained a distant dream.

With Republicans controlling both the House and Senate, Trump should have had the cards in his favour. In what Democrats regarded as an act of spite, he and Ryan set a deadline to erase the ACA on its seventh anniversary, 23 March. They would supplant it with the slimmer American Health Care Act (AHCA).

But as the negotiations gathered steam, it was clearly not going to be plain sailing. Last month, Trump admitted: “Now, I have to tell you, it’s an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew healthcare could be so complicated.” The bill was, in the eyes of many, rushed and deeply flawed, falling well short of Trump’s campaign pledge to provide insurance for everyone.

Grassroots protests erupted across the country, citizen activists hitting the phones and constituents berating congressmen at town hall events. Groups representing hospitals and medical professionals derided the legislation. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that the AHCA would lead to 24 million fewer Americans having health insurance over the next 10 years. The bill achieved the rare feat of uniting the far left and far right in opposition.

The biggest holdouts in Republican ranks were the hardline conservatives of the House Freedom Caucus. Trump tried to woo them with White House bowling sessions and trips on Air Force One. In the final week, he made a desperate bid to prove his credentials as “the closer”, offering concessions such as the removal of 10 so-called essential health benefits, including maternity care and emergency services.

But by Thursday, the supposed day of the vote, the wheels were coming off. Trump digressed, greeting commercial truckers to the White House, climbing into the cab of a 18-wheeler to pose at the wheel and honk the horn. Apparently unaware that the vote had just been postponed until Friday, he said: “It’s going to be a very close vote.”

Meanwhile, the scramble continued. Bannon and the White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, were dispatched to Capitol Hill to try and turn the doubters. Spicer told reporters on Friday that more than 120 members of the House had had a visit, call or meeting at the White House in the past few days. Trump had been making calls from 6am to 11pm, he said.

But even as the press secretary put on a brave face – “Why don’t we continue with a very positive, optimistic Friday?” he said. “The sun is coming out, I feel really good” – Trump and Ryan were about to agree the terms of surrender. The speaker’s funereal expression as he left the White House spoke volumes.

Republicans, who voted more than 60 times to repeal or alter Obamacare over the past few years only to be vetoed by Obama, had got their big chance and blown it. The party’s deep ideological and factional divisions, temporarily papered over amid the euphoria of last November’s surprise win, were back with a vengeance as it struggled to go from opposition to governance.

About a mile and half away, tourists crowded under the magnificent dome of the US Capitol building. As they filed out of the rotunda they saw, outside Ryan’s office, clutches of reporters trading gossip and making mental tallies of votes. Any passing House member was asked eagerly which way they were leaning. The corridors of power in one of the world’s biggest democracies teemed with life.

Trump announced the pulling of the bill in calls to the Washington Post and New York Times. Soon after, digesting the biggest defeat of his career, Ryan admitted that the ACA would remain in place for the foreseeable future, though he claimed it was in a state of collapse – something Democrats fiercely dispute.

The minority party, traumatised by Hillary Clinton’s shock defeat, finally had something to cheer. They called it a a moment to “breathe a sigh of relief” for the American people. The Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, said sarcastically: “So much for The Art of the Deal.”

‘It might have been worse’



Paul Ryan on failed healthcare bill: ‘This is a disappointing day’

The Democrats may have been right about the merits of Obamacare, and the havoc that would have been wrought by “Trumpcare”. But Friday’s debacle may yet be a blessing in disguise for the president.

Bob Shrum, a Democratic consultant and politics professor at the University of Southern California, said: “The truth is it might have been worse for him had it passed because he would have faced a potentially devastating midterm election.

“It’s clear from what he said he was not that personally invested in this. He felt he was obligated to do it for the party. I think his preference was to go first on taxes and maybe infrastructure. The way forward would be to push taxes and then take a leaf out of Ronald Reagan’s book and work with Democrats on infrastructure.”

Trump has said tax reform is next, and years of Republican planning might allow for that legislation to pass more easily. But his ability to work with Congress is in grave question. His unique selling point, as a dealmaker, has taken a huge hit.

Gwenda Blair, a Trump biographer, said of Trump’s supporters: “They voted for a guy who could fix it, the CEO, on The Apprentice for 10 years, who could make a deal with anybody.”

But the tactics that served Trump so well in business – playing the alpha male, holding one-on-one meetings – did not translate to politics, she said.

“Now he’s up against 535 other people [in the House and Senate], other people who have their own independent power base and are not really interested in rolling over. The model of taking one person in a room and beating up on them doesn’t work with 535.”

Friday’s failure was a fillip for the anti-Trump “resistance” but it was hardly grounds for complacency. The president looks set to press ahead with his agenda on everything from rolling back Obama-era protections on the environment to building a wall on the Mexican border to firing off tweets that alienate allies and embolden enemies.

He may also ensure that his prediction of Obamacare’s explosion becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Move fast and break things” will continue, even it if means breaking his own party.