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Annie Linskey | Analysis

Failure of health care bill is a huge setback for Trump

President Trump reacted in the Oval Office on Friday after Republicans pulled their health care bill from the House floor on the day of the vote.
President Trump reacted in the Oval Office on Friday after Republicans pulled their health care bill from the House floor on the day of the vote.Olivier Douliery/Pool/EPA

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump famously said that if he became president he would win so much, Americans would get tired of winning. But so far he’s mostly losing, bigly.

Even with a wide Republican majority in the House, the president failed to deliver on the centerpiece of his legislative agenda — repealing the Affordable Care Act — raising loud questions about the effectiveness of his young presidency and whether Republicans are capable of making the transition from an opposition party to one that governs.

“It’s a catastrophic legislative failure,” said Rick Tyler, a Republican strategist who didn’t support Trump during the election. “It’s the equivalent of having a cardiac arrest. You can recover from it, but it will take a lot of rehab.”


He added: “Political experience is a hard teacher. You get the test first and learn the lesson next.”

Even former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a close Trump ally, delivered a harsh verdict Friday. “Why would you schedule a vote on a bill that is at 17 percent approval?” he asked on his Twitter feed, referring to a Quinnipiac University poll.

The tweet went viral, and in an interview Gingrich added: “When I saw the numbers — that is everything I have opposed in my entire career. That’s how the Republicans lost the majority.”

Still, the defeat of Trump’s first request of Congress represents a further deterioration of his already shaky credibility in Washington and among the American people.

He has cast himself as a master salesman and the “closer” who can win over allies in the most difficult of circumstances through some combination of his winning personality and take-no-prisoners approach to negotiations.

But that picture of Trump is becoming about as questionable as his unsubstantiated claims that he had huge crowd sizes at his inauguration, his unproven accusations that bus loads of Massachusetts voters cast illegal ballots in New Hampshire, and his much rejected insistence that then-President Obama put a wiretap on his phone.


The pattern, in the eyes of his harshest critics, is that there’s little evidence to back up his boasts.

He could not close this deal. Republican members of the House of Representatives, who have voted to repeal the Obama health law more than 50 times in the past seven years, refused Trump’s entreaties to support the Republican replacement for the law.

The setback comes as other storm clouds are gathering over the Trump presidency. There’s the FBI investigation into whether his campaign staff coordinated e-mail leaks designed to influence the election, along with the Russians.

FBI director James Comey was spotted going in and out of the West Wing on Friday, which was a reminder of the investigation, even if the White House claimed Comey was there for a routine meeting.

Federal courts have stayed two versions of Trump’s attempt to ban travelers from several majority-Muslim countries from coming to the United States, another spectacular failure in the opening weeks of his presidency.

And now Trump’s biggest legislative agenda item has just smashed into the walls of Congress.

“The most important question is: ‘What does everyone learn from this?’ ” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist.

President Trump spoke from the Oval Office Friday after the health care bill was withdrawn.
President Trump spoke from the Oval Office Friday after the health care bill was withdrawn.

And has Trump gained any insight about how to deal with the conservative Freedom Caucus, which has been a thorn in the side of Republican leaders for years? It reflects the hard-right group of lawmakers who resisted the more conciliatory approach of former House speaker John Boehner, who it helped push out of office, a development that paved the way for Speaker Paul Ryan.


“How many concessions do you make to some members who are more inclined to vote ‘no’ than vote ‘yes?’ ” Madden asked.

Still, he said, the health care defeat is “not a fatal blow.”

“Everybody has to learn from this and reorient their plans to the reality that having control of the House and the Senate doesn’t guarantee that you’re gong to be able to deliver on big pieces of legislation,” Madden said.

Trump has outlined an ambitious legislative agenda for his first year that includes overhauling the federal tax code, passing a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, and deeply cutting the federal budget. He decided to start with the health care overhaul, which has proven to be a morass for many other politicians, including Hillary Clinton.

Ryan acknowledged Friday that the tax overhaul would be more difficult in the wake of the loss on health care.

One lesson Trump seemed to be learning is that the House of Representatives has a pool of potential voters who are Democrats.

Indeed, many independent analysts and some Democrats concede that the federal health care law is flawed and needs changing.

On Friday, some Democrats began using the mantra “mend, don’t end” the Affordable Care Act.

“If [Democrats] got together with us, and got us a real health care bill, I’d be totally OK with that,” Trump said in the Oval Office on Friday after the Republican version of the health care bill had been pulled from the floor.


“I honestly believe the Democrats will come to us and say let’s get together and get a great health care bill or plan that’s really great for the people in this country, and I think that’s going to happen,” he added.

Those comments will only cause suspicion from the right wing of the Republican Party, which includes members already deeply worried that Trump will sell them out.

“Credibility is going to come into play here,” said Tyler. “The Freedom Caucus asked: ‘Is this guy going to be with me? Is he going to have my back?’ He’s not ideologically aligned. You don’t know where he’s going to be from day to day.”

Tyler added: “If they are going to take a historic, potentially career-ending vote, they want to know he has their back.”

Gingrich, who is a close Trump adviser, said in an interview that the president must stay open to revisiting the health care overhaul in coming months.

“You don’t need an artificial deadline for defeat,” Gingrich said. “Trump should say to the congressional Republicans, ‘You should work with Secretary [Tom] Price and bring me a passable, popular bill sometime this year. By the way, while you’re doing that, I’ll continue reorganizing the federal government, cutting red tape, and passing an infrastructure bill. Call when you have done your work and I need to pay attention again.’ ”


Annie Linskey can be reached at annie.linskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.