Julian Zelizer: Trump failed in using the blame game on Obamacare repeal
Trump, it turns out, is not actually able to put together any deal that he wants, says Zelizer
Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and a New America fellow, is the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He’s co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
In the final hours of the health care debate, President Trump’s primary political strategy became clear. He threatened to blame Speaker Paul Ryan and the congressional Republicans if the bill went down to defeat. They would be responsible for the continuation of Obamacare.
He would make this clear to his constituents. Speaker Ryan and the congressional Republicans did not deliver. There is no plan B, his press secretary Sean Spicer said. If the bill was defeated, the President explained, Republicans would have to shoulder the responsibility for the survival of Obamacare and for breaking their campaign pledge.
It didn’t work. In the final hours of the workday, President Trump conceded defeat and agreed when Speaker Ryan said to pull the bill.
But don’t expect him to pull back from his blame game strategy. From the moment that he took office, President Trump has been blaming everyone else for every problem that he has faced.
When he lost the popular vote, he blamed voter fraud. When the crowds were relatively thin for his inauguration, he blamed the “fake news” for publishing false reports about the numbers. Each time that the Russia investigation took a turn that reflected poorly on him, the President has blamed leakers or Democrats – or even President Obama, who he said used McCarthyite tactics against him.
Trump loves to point the finger at the other guy. He plays the blame game more than any other president in recent history.
Trump has mastered the blame game in part because he exhibits no restraint, and is willing to go to places previous presidents would not. While all presidents lie, he is willing to make false statements all the time, unapologetically, as he plays with fact and fiction in ways that make it difficult for his opponents to feel that they are on stable ground.
In a polarized political world where most Americans tend to get their political information from biased sources that confirm, rather than challenge, their beliefs, Trump’s full-throated attacks on opponents, his positioning himself as a president taking on the world, his conspiracy theorizing, still resonate with his Republican supporters.
But now, in the aftermath of his failure on health care, it is he who is not standing on stable ground. Regardless of what Trump says, the loss in the House was devastating. This was the first major piece of legislation that the administration has tried to move through Congress after a “hundred days” that have been dominated by executive orders.
Obamacare repeal is an issue that has been near and dear to the heart of the GOP since 2010. Republicans have promised to overturn the ACA and, even with a united government, they failed. The loss will embolden Trump’s opponents as it is now clear that he can be defeated. He will have that much less credibility to move members of either party along on controversial matters like free trade.
To be sure, Trump’s opponents should not take anything for granted. Trump has proven that when he attacks, he goes for the kill, and the humiliation of this defeat will inevitably lead him toward turning the Freedom Caucus, Speaker Ryan and the Democrats into the new reason for his problems.
The challenge for Trump is that as he gets deeper into his presidency, voters who have supported him will more clearly see his vulnerabilities. As he continues to blame other people, these voters will start to see why it is he who is to blame.
Over the past few weeks, President Trump has exposed many of his own weaknesses, all of which contributed to today’s failure in the House. The Russia-gate scandal is continuing to consume much of the national conversation about his presidency, emboldening his critics who sense that there is much more to come.
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His endless tweets and groundless attacks, including about President Obama, have forced Republicans to spend much more time talking about his behavior rather than their legislative agenda. The lack of preparation and scattershot approach to dealing with policy and Congress have cost him. His coalition-building strategy on this bill was sloppy and ended up alienating everyone, as he deeply underestimated conservative opposition to Ryan’s plan.
Trump, it turns out, is not actually able to put together any deal that he wants. In this case, he was the loser.
While the president will be gearing up to blame everyone for this defeat, the truth is that he might just have no one to blame but himself.