The roots of last week’s Trump-Ryan health-care debacle lie in the resistance to compromise that Republicans have displayed over the years. And it could happen again if President Donald Trump relies only on Republicans to pass his legislative initiatives.
The House GOP’s failure to unite behind the bill to repeal and replace Obamacare reflected the crucial difference between its rank-and-file and that of the Democrats. When asked in polls if they favored officials who stood by their principles or those willing to compromise, Republicans inevitably said they prefer the former and Democrats the latter.
For example, an October 2015 Associated Press-GFK poll, taken during a budget showdown between President Barack Obama’s White House and congressional Republicans, showed Democrats by 3-to-1 said they wanted their leaders to compromise. But Republicans by 4-to-3 favored leaders who stick to their principles, even if it makes passing legislation more difficult.
Exemplifying that contrast is the way the Democrats, when holding the presidency and the Congress in 2009, were able to surmount internal differences over rival health approaches and coalesce to support the Affordable Care Act.
But when Republicans faced a comparable circumstance in trying to “repeal and replace” that law, their leaders failed to reconcile differences between the purists in the Freedom Caucus, who wanted to scrap it totally, and more moderate members who feared the impact on their constituents.
To be sure, part of the problem was flawed legislation. But that kind of thing could be fixed later in the legislative process, if House Republicans had been willing to take the necessary first step.
Typically, Trump sought to deflect responsibility, blaming the Democrats and predicting, “I honestly believe the Democrats will come to us” to craft a solution. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer promptly said he could do that, but partisan disagreements will make substantive compromises very difficult.
Besides, the Democrats succeeded in 2009-10 without any Republican support, in part because of a bigger Senate majority, but primarily because President Barack Obama and then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi did the hard work to bring their party together.
Trump’s White House also blamed House Speaker Paul Ryan. But Ryan showed a far more realistic understanding of the problem than the president did, conceding the GOP has yet to show it can go from an opposition party to a governing party.
The choice, Ryan said Friday, comes down to this: “Are all of us willing to give a little to get something done? Are we willing to say ‘yes’ to the good, to the very good, even if it’s not the perfect?”
His words echoed the attitude President Ronald Reagan instilled in the GOP a generation ago by arguing: “If you got 75 or 80 percent of what you were asking for, I say, you take it and fight for the rest later.” And at least one House Republican, Texas Rep. Ted Poe, said he was quitting the Freedom Caucus.
Reagan was a popular leader who not only could make the broad case for his proposals but also display flexibility. Trump is less popular and has yet to show that ability. According to Politico’s Tim Alberta, he turned off Freedom Caucus members by telling them: “Forget about the little (expletive). Let’s focus on the big picture here.”
But it was the little details lawmakers wanted to discuss, and Trump’s lack of knowledge turned him into a cheerleader, rather than an effective negotiator. Besides, his refusal to reach beyond his own base restricted his ability to persuade. One thing that made Reagan effective was he built personal bridges to Democrats, including some who disagreed with him.
Afterward, the White House said it hopes this will clear the way for other parts of Trump’s agenda, especially tax reform. But Ryan conceded, “This does make tax reform more difficult.”
The complexity of the tax code and the contradictory goals of different economic interests explain why it’s been 30 years since Congress reformed the tax laws. And GOP leaders must overcome sharp divisions on crucial issues, like the proposal for an import tax to help finance cuts for business and wealthy taxpayers.
Though Trump said he learned a lot, his reaction suggests he doesn’t really understand the degree that the internecine relationships within the House GOP reflect the attitudes of Republicans as a whole.
And even before Congress can consider a tax bill, Republicans face another test when federal funding for the government runs out next month and they may have to overcome the same internal split that killed the health bill.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is a columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Readers may email him at email@example.com.