I thought the strategy if the bill fails is to blame Democrats. Remember? If it tanks, Trump and the GOP will shrug, kick back, watch as premiums under ObamaCare continue to rise over the next 16 months, and then run in 2018 on the idea that we need to elect even more Republicans to finally, finally, finally clean up the O-Care mess. After eight years of electing Republicans to clean up the O-Care mess.
A clear, consistent message that this is all Democrats’ fault might be effective. But what if that message is muddled with claims that it’s all conservatives’ fault too?
President Trump has told Republican leaders that he’s prepared to play hardball with congressional conservatives to pass the GOP healthcare bill, including by supporting the 2018 primary challengers of any Republican who votes against the bill…
Trump’s threat is one that could resonate. Most of the Republicans who oppose the GOP’s American Health Care Act represent ruby red districts that strongly support Trump and his agenda…
Rep. Mark Meadows, chairman of the Freedom Caucus, the primary group of House Republicans opposed to the healthcare bill, is a possible target. His western North Carolina district voted overwhelmingly for Trump in November, and Meadows has come out in opposition to the bill…
“The president has a very powerful bully pulpit and a very powerful tweet and so I would never want to take on the president in either of those realms,” he admitted.
“He has unique capacities,” said a House Republican to the Examiner of Trump. “I wouldn’t want to be the one he tests them out on.” Campaigning in 2018 against the most fiscally conservative members of his own party for opposing a lame ObamaCare reform bill would be the perfect ending to the Trump counter-revolution. Grassroots anger with Washington birthed the tea-party movement in 2009, kicking off an eight-year frenzy among GOP pols of pandering to populist conservatives; so powerful was it that John Boehner ended up resigning from Congress rather than face an insurrection inside the House caucus led by Mark Meadows. Then along came a big-government Republican who recognized that grassroots Republicans cared a lot about populism and only a very little about conservatism. And now here he is, hinting that none other than Mark Meadows might be ousted from Congress unless he supports a weak plan that’ll create a new Republican health-care entitlement and which is being offered for no better reason than that Something Must Pass, And Soon. It’s the GOP equivalent of sending Robespierre to the guillotine, except with Napoleon giving the order.
We’ll see how bold Trump is when the time comes, though. Parties don’t relinquish their incumbents lightly. Even in a red district, you’re taking more of a risk running a first-time no-name Republican candidate against a Democrat than you are running an incumbent House member whose name is universally recognized. Trump could help solve that problem by promoting the no-name consistently, of course, but it remains to be seen how much energy he’d devote to hyping any single candidate. It also remains to be seen how valuable his support would be. If his popularity soars before 2018 and it looks like the GOP’s going to score big in the midterms no matter what happens, then yeah, he’ll have leverage to play hardball with Meadows and other conservative critics. But what if his popularity doesn’t soar? If the economy hasn’t taken off and he’s stuck at 43 percent approval, anything he does to undercut a Republican incumbent will improve the Democrats’ chances of retaking the House. And, against all odds, ObamaCare reform may end up as less of an issue in 2018 than anyone expects. ObamaCare premiums may prove more stable than anticipated; or Democratic messaging attacking the House GOP’s plan as a giveaway to the rich might resonate with voters, which will make Trump think twice about heading out on the trail against Meadows et al. to tout the bill’s virtues.
Needless to say, if he goes this route of actively campaigning against members of his own party, he’s committing himself to a “fear” strategy rather than a “partnership” strategy towards the caucus for the rest of his presidency. All he’d need to do to terrorize conservatives in Congress is successfully engineer primary challenges to one or two big names — Meadows, say, and Mark Walker — and the rest will fall in line. But they’ll remember. And the moment his own national popularity tanks, they’ll repay his lack of loyalty. I think it’s less likely that Trump really will help primary any House Republicans in 2018 (he’ll be too nervous about weakening incumbents and stoking “GOP civil war!” narratives) than that he knows some aspiring candidates will organically decide to seize the opportunity to run against Meadows and other tea partiers in 2018 and he wants to create ambiguity about whether he’ll support them or not. He’s keeping his options open, hoping current House members take the hint and fall in line. And most probably will. But those who vote no will likely be let off the hook unless they end up criticizing Trump harshly. At least that’s how I’d bet.
Here’s an early shot across the bow of TrumpCare critics from the White House: Mike Pence campaigning today in Kentucky, home of the most vocal Republican opponent of the bill in Congress, Rand Paul. Paul was a poor choice, though, if the administration is looking to intimidate someone. He’s a true-blue ideologue and was just reelected to the Senate, and Kentucky has actually done comparatively well under ObamaCare. Paul may very well continue to oppose the bill despite Pence coming into his backyard and all but daring him to vote no. And if he does, that’ll encourage other TrumpCare opponents to stay strong.