In the hyperkinetic political era we live in, change happens very quickly. President Trump is the driving force behind this increased speed of the political discourse, but Paul Ryan gamely tried to capitalize on the new frenzy by passing his own favored "repeal and replace Obamacare" bill as quickly as humanly possible. He was going to whip it through the House so fast nobody would know what was in the bill, and then the Senate was magically going to refuse to even debate the bill and instead move it directly to the floor for a vote. This would all happen at blinding speed, and then everyone in Congress could go home for the Easter holiday, having already put the bill on Trump's desk. Problem solved!
Instead, it is now looking like Ryan's "Ryancare" bill is going to face a very tough uphill fight, even among his own Republicans. Passage is in no way guaranteed even in Ryan's House, and the prospects of Ryancare emerging from the Senate in its present form is looking vanishingly small. If the Ryancare bill is in serious trouble, what I am now wondering is whether Donald Trump will at some point drop his support for what seems to be a losing proposition. Trump, after all, hates to lose.
What I've found remarkable thus far into the debate is the complete absence of any Republican supporters of the bill who do not work directly for the Trump administration (or who are not named "Paul Ryan"). Think about it -- who have you seen on television singing the praises of Ryancare (or even defending it against detractors)? In normal circumstances, Ryan would have a whole posse of supporters backing him up -- prominent GOP senators and House committee chairs, for instance -- all of whom would be downright eager to be interviewed on television in order to help frame the debate positively for the bill. So far, though, all the Republicans I've seen on television have been forcefully speaking out against Ryancare. It's not even just one faction, either -- there's a whole spectrum of reasons why Republican congresscritters are denouncing Ryancare. Some hate even the idea of tax credits (to help people buy health insurance). Some think the gutting of Medicaid should happen faster. Some think Medicaid shouldn't be gutted at all. Some hate the new penalty for not continuously having health insurance. Some GOP senators were shocked at the C.B.O. estimates, and see Ryancare as political suicide. There are a whole passel of reasons why Republicans don't like Ryan's bill. But so far there aren't many voices even trying to defend the bill other than Ryan himself and administration spokespeople.
This doesn't really bode well for the chances the bill can pass even in Ryan's own House, much less the Senate. Pretty soon, people in Washington will start to begin whispering that the bill is completely dead in the water -- that's usually the next step for doomed legislative efforts. If Ryan knows full well he doesn't have the votes to pass it, he probably won't even bring it to the floor for a vote (to spare himself the embarrassment). At this point, Republicans will either go back to the drawing board and start working on a different plan, or they'll throw their hands up and decide to move on to another of their agenda items (like passing other massive tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans). Sooner or later they're going to start facing budget deadlines, which will likely dominate the political scene and starve all other issues of oxygen.
Now, maybe things aren't as dire for Ryancare as watching the political news on television would have you believe. Maybe there are back-room deals happening which will give Ryan enough support to get his bill passed in the House. Maybe. It's certainly possible. Even so, the incredibly lopsided debate is what is playing out on television -- where Ryan appears to be on his own, unless you count people who directly work for Donald Trump. I have yet to see one prominent Republican congressman take Ryan's side in public (although I admit I might have missed it if it did happen). But here's the key -- while the debate happening on television might not fully reflect the reality (Ryancare might have a lot of silent support from backbenchers, in other words), television is how Trump gets his political news. So he's watching the same debate everyone else is seeing play out on their television screens.
Paul Ryan and Donald Trump seemed to come to a sort of handshake agreement during the campaign. If Trump became president, the arrangement would basically boil down to Ryan doing all the wonky detail work (that Trump isn't interested in), and then Trump would sign whatever bills Ryan got passed and immediately take all the credit for himself. That was the way it was supposed to work. Ryan puts in maximum effort and gets maximum return on his own ideological details. Trump puts in minimum effort and gets the maximum political capital for signing the bill. Easy-peasy, right?
The conundrum Ryan now finds himself in is exactly the same one John Boehner faced. Ryan is getting savaged from the right. In particular, Breitbart is whipping anti-Ryan feelings into a frenzy. He's caught in the old fable of the frog and the scorpion, to be blunt. The Tea Party faction is best at strenuously being against things. It's who they are. So while Ryan is boldly attempting to swim the river to get to the other side, the Tea Party is going to fatally sting him and cause both to drown. Again, it's who they are.
If this becomes obvious to Trump, he's got three basic choices (unless he wants to continue to be the only other Republican in Washington defending Ryan's plan). He could introduce his own "Trumpcare" plan to compete with Ryancare in Congress. He promised he'd do this repeatedly on the campaign trail, after all, but so far has not done so. Or Trump could identify which parts of Ryancare are unacceptable to him. He could either double down on some of his campaign promises (such as "everybody will be covered" or "I won't touch Medicaid"), or he could pick and choose which parts of Ryancare people seem to hate the worst. Either way, he'd be acting traditionally, since this is a normal dealmaking role for the White House to play in the legislative process, either within the president's own party or with the opposition. Thirdly, though, Trump could just completely flip-flop on his support for Ryancare and join the chorus of Republicans who are currently denouncing it for one reason or another.
It's really hard to predict which direction Trump will choose, because this is the first time he's ever been faced with the complexities of moving major legislation through Congress. The bill he's chosen to back is getting more unpopular by the day. Will he continue to be the biggest spokesman for a losing cause? Or will Trump eventually break with Ryan and chart his own political path through the health insurance minefield?
If Trump does break with Ryan, he's not likely to come up with his own Trumpcare plan. Much like many other Republicans running for office, Trump never had a plan, he just liked to say that he did to the voters. If Trump ever had any intention of introducing his own plan, he probably would have done so before now -- or, at the very least, worked with Ryan to make sure that his priorities were included in Ryan's bill. Neither of those happened, so neither is likely to happen any time soon. Trump having a plan was a lie all along, in other words.
Trump may just decide to attack certain parts of Ryancare, like many other Republicans are currently doing. He may eventually tell Ryan (in an early-morning tweet, perhaps) to go back to the drawing board and fix a few unacceptable things: "24m lose insurance? Not what I promised! Paul Ryan needs to FIX THIS NOW!" This may be provoked by yet another story on cable news about how awful the Ryancare plan will be for Trump's core voters, perhaps. If Trump stood up to Ryan in such a fashion, it might reassure his voters that he's looking out for them, it would distance Trump from an obviously unpopular bill, and it would validate all the other people on the right who are currently attacking Ryan. All of that might be tempting to Trump, at some point (especially if he sees his own approval ratings heading down in the midst of the debate).
Then again, there's the third option. Trump might not bother giving detailed reasons, he might just completely turn on Ryan. Trump's not normally known for nuance, after all, as he tends to see things through a black-and-white filter. If Trump just tweets out that Ryancare is "bad" (or maybe even "sad!") and starts personally trashing Ryan, then Ryancare as we know it can be pronounced completely dead. If Trump sees Ryancare as being doomed, then he might just decide to unhitch his own political wagon from it altogether. And if Trump bows out, it will truly leave Paul Ryan as the sole voice supporting the bill he put together.
That's going to get lonely fast, to put it mildly. It would also destroy the whole handshake agreement between Ryan and Trump -- which would have big repercussions when the budget battles get underway. If Ryan has already been undermined by the failure to repeal and replace Obamacare, he's going to be in a lot weaker position within the Republican Party heading into budget season, that's for sure.
Donald Trump hates to lose. Ryancare, at this point, looks more and more like it's going to be a big loser. Unless Ryan immediately makes some very serious adjustments to his bill, it's doubtful whether it'll make it out of the House -- it may not even get the chance for a floor vote, if Ryan can accurately count votes in his own caucus. If Ryancare seems certain to die an ignoble death, how long will Trump continue to support it? Given the amount of information Trump gets from cable television, the temptation for Trump to cut and run away from Ryancare might just become overwhelming. Whether Trump edges away from Ryan or cuts all ties in one angry tweet, once Trump sees Ryancare as a guaranteed loser he may just start looking for a personal way out of the mess. Because Trump hates losing -- more than anything else.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant