Shots. Fired. After the failure of the American Health Care Act (AHCA) last week, the White House sent mixed signals on where to put the blame. Donald Trump’s Twitter feed this week has removed all ambiguity, especially this particular entry from earlier this morning. The president is putting House conservatives — Tea Party stalwarts — in the same category as Democrats, and warning that they now have administration targets on their backs in the next election unless they start toeing the line:
The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don't get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 30, 2017
Clearly, the White House has settled on siding with Paul Ryan when it comes to assigning blame for the initial failure of the ObamaCare repeal. I had added this tweet to my earlier post on Ryan and his insistence that AHCA remains on the table, but it’s worth noting separately in light of further reporting on the continuing repeal negotiations. Apparently it didn’t go any better last night, even with Ryan taking a more laissez-faire approach:
House Republicans’ latest last-ditch effort to revive a GOP Obamacare replacement faltered late Wednesday night after talks between conservatives and moderates broke down.
Senior members of the centrist Tuesday Group and far-right House Freedom Caucus have been trying to find a deal that would bring the two polar opposite flanks of the conference to “yes.” They met on Tuesday night, and had hoped to have another meeting Wednesday evening, but it was canceled amid sharp policy disagreements. …
Sources say moderates were also upset that GOP leadership was not involved in the discussion. After Speaker Paul Ryan pulled the bill last Friday, GOP leaders encouraged the two sides — which effectively tanked the bill together — to get in a room and work out their differences.
With that in mind, it’s easy to see why Trump doesn’t see Ryan as the problem. That might be a paradigm shift for Trump advisers like Stephen Bannon, whose editorial thrust while running Breitbart hammered Ryan at every opportunity in an attempt to push him out of the speakership. In that effort Bannon had some allies within the Freedom Caucus, who did successfully push his predecessor John Boehner out of that position. Suddenly, though, they’re now the ones under the microscope for opposing Ryan, which might be enough to induce some whiplash among the members.
At least a few of them might be having second thoughts after coming under sustained Trumpian fire this week, NPR suggests:
Now, some Freedom Caucus members are reassessing their no-compromise brand of conservatism, as their tactics fuel fresh resentment within the GOP.
“We are not an independent group. We are part of the Republican conference. We have an obligation to govern,” said Rep. Joe Barton, a Freedom Caucus member and the senior member of the Texas Republican congressional delegation.
Another HFC member, Dave Brat, shrugged off the threat:
Freedom Caucus member Rep. David Brat on Trump's tweet about fighting the caucus: "I don't take it as a threat" https://t.co/xUV92Pk5s8
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) March 30, 2017
Brat insists that Trump’s not being told that the HFC is “working with the other groups,” but that doesn’t make a lot of sense. By all accounts, Trump himself has been personally involved with the negotiations — in fact, that’s his self-described forte — including with HFC chair Mark Meadows. He’s had members to the White House for pizza and bowling nights, and he’s worked the phones until midnight. Not only does Trump appear to have a pretty good grasp of the situation, he’s responding in his usual take-no-prisoners manner when denied a deal. Brat can argue that he’s trying to protect the president, but the president certainly doesn’t see it that way.
Matt Lewis sees this tweet as a declaration of war, but wonders whether Trump can win it:
…Trump (or, more likely, an outside group operating on his behalf) could identify some loyal Trump supporters to “primary” some of the Freedom Caucus members. Even if it doesn’t work—even if Trump fails to oust anyone—the threat that the President of the United States might come to your district—might run a radio ad for your Republican opponent—could be enough to make you think twice before crossing him again.
This could be part of a larger negotiation. Read the tweet closely, and you’ll see it’s a threat. He says this will happen “If they don’t get on the team.” In other words, they had better cooperate with him on tax reform, avoiding a government shutdown, etc.
Back when Trump was trying to sell his health care plan, he warned Republicans that “many of you will lose your seats” if it didn’t pass. As was the case with many of Trump’s pronouncements, it wasn’t precisely clear what he meant. Now, things are starting to come into better focus. He wasn’t doing political analysis. He was issuing a threat.
That didn’t work against Paul Ryan, when outside groups and Breitbart championed the ill-fated challenge from Paul Nehlen, but Dave Brat doesn’t have that same long-term relationship with his constituents. Neither do some others in the Freedom Caucus, who might find that their own grassroots rise might be duplicated by more Trump-friendly populists in their districts. There may be a lot of second thoughts coming from the Freedom Caucus, and perhaps a focus on governance in the longer run after a short-term reminder of their importance to the majority.