Trump: Replacing ObamaCare could take until 2018

This, not the moral equivalence vis-a-vis Putin, may be the real headline from yesterday’s O’Reilly interview. It was less than a month ago that Trump was talking impatiently about the timeline for repeal:

Mr. Trump, who seemed unclear about the timing of already scheduled votes in Congress this week, demanded a repeal vote “probably some time next week,” and said “the replace will be very quickly or simultaneously, very shortly thereafter.”

Mr. Trump said there was no cause for delay. And he said he would not accept a delay of more than a few weeks before a replacement plan was voted on. “Long to me would be weeks,” he said. “It won’t be repeal and then two years later go in with another plan.” That directly contradicts House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s plans.

“We have to get to business,” he told the Times. “Obamacare has been a catastrophic event.” Rand Paul claimed to have spoken to Trump around the same time and suggested that the GOP roll out a replacement plan for ObamaCare immediately, to be passed in conjunction with repeal — and Trump, according to Paul, had responded favorably. Suddenly McConnell and Ryan were faced with a president who seemed to expect a whole new U.S. health insurance system within weeks, even though (a) the GOP had no consensus plan yet, and (b) getting eight Democrats in the Senate to support the new plan would be a verrrrrry tough haul politically right now.

Sounds like someone did a reality check for him since then because now he’s talking 2018 for the new system:

In an interview with Fox News conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly asked: “Can Americans in 2017 expect a new health care plan rolled out by the Trump administration this year?”

“Yes, in the process and maybe it’ll take till sometime into next year but we’re certainly going to be in the process,” Trump said.

“(It’s) very complicated — Obamacare is a disaster. You have to remember, Obamacare doesn’t work so we are putting in a wonderful plan,” he said. “It statutorily takes a while to get. We’re going to be putting it in fairly soon, I think that — yes, I would like to say by the end of the year at least the rudiments but we should have something within the year and the following year.”

That sounds like “repeal and delay,” i.e. pass something now to undo the law and replace any provisions you can via reconciliation (e.g., the mandate) but then take your time and build out a more robust, complete system next year, when hopefully panicky red-state Democrats will be ready to bite the bullet and vote yes. “Repeal and delay” is the opposite of what Trump told Paul he wanted — simultaneous repeal and replace, and soon — but it’s what most Republican legislators want, if only for prudential reasons. The fact that Trump is backing off his earlier timeline shows some prudence on his part too. I assume his fan base will hang with him on that, although the stakes for all this will get very, very high if his approval rating slides this year and suddenly he’s extremely unpopular in 2018. If Democrats see that Trump is toxic next year, they’ll refuse to sign on to a GOP replacement plan and suddenly Republicans will be in limbo, with ObamaCare set to expire shortly and the Senate paralyzed due to a Democratic filibuster. Trump could face a situation where he’ll have to agree to extend ObamaCare past the midterms and then hope for a big election night for the GOP, giving him the votes he needs in the Senate to get to 60. But big election nights tend not to happen for the president’s party if his job approval is in the toilet.

One other note of late about the GOP’s ObamaCare messaging, which you can see as prudential or ominous as you prefer: Increasingly they’ve begun to talk about “repairing” ObamaCare, not repealing or replacing. Maybe that’s just PR designed to make it easier for red-state Democrats to sign on with their plans, but if you’re nervous about the GOP getting cold feet on blowing up Obama’s most famous boondoggle, the rhetorical shift won’t make you feel better.