The Outsider Enters Boldly and Trips Over His Own Shoelaces
“There’s a new sheriff in town” is a pretty popular power fantasy. We find ourselves stuck in a circumstance where everyone seems to be running amok, pursuing their own selfish or petty agenda, acting in complete disregard of the needs of others or the community as a whole. Our patience is exhausted, we’re fed up with it, and we make a bold, impossible to ignore, vaguely threatening gesture that demonstrates our supreme power. ENOUGH! Everyone freezes. We declare that order has returned. We begin dictating orders to others, to put everyone in their place. Cowed and intimidated, everyone dutifully returns to their proper place as part of a well-organized machine.
When the balky hardliners of the House Freedom Caucus visited the White House earlier this week, this was Steve Bannon’s opening line, according to people in the conference room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building:
“Guys, look. This is not a discussion. This is not a debate. You have no choice but to vote for this bill.”
Bannon’s point was: This is the Republican platform. You’re the conservative wing of the Republican Party. But people in the room were put off by the dictatorial mindset.
One of the members replied: ”You know, the last time someone ordered me to something, I was 18 years old. And it was my daddy. And I didn’t listen to him, either.”
“You have no choice…” Except, the members did. Perhaps at Breitbart.com, Bannon got used to negotiating with people he could fire. The president and his team can’t make a member vote for a bill, particularly one the member thinks is terrible or severely disappointing.
Thursday afternoon, members of the House Freedom Caucus were peppering the president with wonkish concerns about the American Health Care Act—the language that would leave Obamacare’s “essential health benefits” in place, the community rating provision that limited what insurers could charge certain patients, and whether the next two steps of Speaker Paul Ryan’s master plan were even feasible—when Trump decided to cut them off.
“Forget about the little s***,” Trump said, according to multiple sources in the room. “Let’s focus on the big picture here.”
The group of roughly 30 House conservatives, gathered around a mammoth, oval-shaped conference table in the Cabinet Room of the White House, exchanged disapproving looks. Trump wanted to emphasize the political ramifications of the bill’s defeat; specifically, he said, it would derail his first-term agenda and imperil his prospects for reelection in 2020. The lawmakers nodded and said they understood. And yet they were disturbed by his dismissiveness. For many of the members, the “little s***” meant the policy details that could make or break their support for the bill—and have far-reaching implications for their constituents and the country.
Maybe to Trump these details about the bill were “the little s***.” But to the members in front of him, this was the make-or-break criteria of what makes a good reform bill. You would think the author of The Art of the Deal would have understood the importance of knowing the other side’s priorities. I seem to recall impassioned, insistent assurances during the 2016 Republican presidential primary that Trump was the ultimate dealmaker. Now we’re assured by Trump fan Bill Mitchell, “Trump is prescient and a brilliant strategist; therefore, the death of today’s bill was part of his long term strategy.”
We’ve seen the growing enthusiasm for “outsiders” in American politics in recent years. A pratfall like this isn’t the only potential outcome with an outsider, but it’s a strong possibility. They either think they can completely rewrite how the system works, haven’t bothered to study how the system works, or don’t care how the system works. But they don’t actually change how the system works.
Like most of my colleagues, I found AHCA pretty “meh” at best. (With all the bashing going on right now, it’s worth remembering that the bill did offer flexibility to the states on Medicaid, did reduce the deficit, would reduce premiums in the long term if not the short term, and constituted the biggest effort at entitlement reform in a generation.) But because of the impossibility of getting 60 votes in the Senate, it didn’t include tort reform, insurance companies selling across state lines, and a couple of other big elements of the conservative health care reform agenda. It’s quite possible that had this bill been enacted, most Americans would feel like nothing had changed or improved by November 2018.
This was always a thorny, multifaceted problem. But the president and congressional Republicans were quite clear in their promises in 2016. They told us they could handle this, and they made fixing it sound easy. At what point is it fair to conclude their self-assurance was evidence they had no idea what they were talking about?
Could You Guys Stop Finger-Pointing for a Minute?
Historians and students of the presidency love Abraham Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals” in his cabinet. They describe it as messy and complicated but effective and a way to guarantee a diverse range of viewpoints and options are considered. But I’ve always wondered whether the “team of rivals” approach worked because it’s a good system… or whether it worked because Abraham Lincoln was using it.
Because if you have a “team of rivals” in your White House, everybody spends a lot of time jockeying for position and addressing “palace intrigue” instead of, you know, their jobs.
What would be the worst possible way to respond to a defeat? Oh, probably recriminations and finger-pointing, instead of refocusing on common goals and getting everyone on the same page, rowing in the same direction.
With President Donald Trump’s sweeping agenda hitting the rocks as he edges toward the 100-day mark, top aides, political allies and donors are embroiled in a furious round of finger-pointing over who is at fault.
The recriminations extend far beyond the implosion of the GOP’s Obamacare repeal on Friday. Senior aides are lashing each other over their inability to stem a never-ending tide of negative stories about the president. There is second-guessing of the Republican National Committee’s efforts to mobilize Trump’s electoral coalition on behalf of his legislative priorities. At the Environmental Protection Agency, a top official quit recently amid accusations the department is failing to advance the president’s campaign promises. And one of Trump’s most generous benefactors, Rebekah Mercer, has expressed frustration over the direction of the administration.
It’s not even April yet.
Keeping Up with the Joneses in Our Friends Feed
Two sharp and thought-provoking observations from Kevin Williamson:
Two things are going on here related to American unhappiness: The first is that as our economy becomes less physical and more intellectual, success in life is less like war and more like chess, and extraordinary success in life — i.e., being part of the founding of a successful new company — is a lot like being a grandmaster: It is an avenue that simply is not open to everyone. It requires talents that are not distributed with any sense of fairness and that are not earnable: Hard work is not enough. Peter Thiel is both a successful entrepreneur and a ranked chess master — and these facts are not merely coincidental. You can blame Thiel a little bit for the second factor in American unhappiness: Facebook. Facebook and other social-media communities are a kind of ongoing high-school reunion, the real and unstated purpose of which is to dramatize the socioeconomic gulf between those who have made it in life and those who have not. We simply know more about how our more successful friends and neighbors live than our ancestors knew about John D. Rockefeller, about whom they thought seldom if at all. Our contemporary tycoons have reality shows (some of which blossom into presidencies, oddly enough), but social media is itself a kind of reality show for everybody else.
Of course, Facebook does not present to our friends the way our lives really are. It presents what we choose to share, which in most cases is the best moments, the triumphs, the joy and the humble-brags. It’s not hard to look at Facebook pages and think other people’s lives consist of nothing but good times, happy families, thrilling vacations, adorable children, birthday thanks, spectacular-looking food…
ADDENDA: RIP, Linda Bridges. Life has many awful feelings; one in particular is hearing about someone’s death and then looking at your e-mail archives, seeing the nice notes over the years and all the times you didn’t reply.
Our old friend Elaina Plott writes a wonderful profile of Mary Katharine Ham for Washingtonian magazine.