Over the past 24 hours, Republican officials have watched in horror as the Trump administration once again fully embraced the repeal of Obamacare, less than a year after the issue proved toxic for the party at the ballot box.
The embrace came in two steps: with the Department of Justice siding with a lower court ruling that declared the health care law invalid in toto, and with the president tweeting that the Republican Party would become the party of health-care reform. And it quickly complicated what had been widely viewed as one of the best weeks of Trump’s presidency. Ebullient over a four-page summary of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s meddling—a summary that said the president was not guilty of collusion—Trump suddenly found himself back in a debate that has vexed his administration.
GOP officials couldn’t help but marvel at Trump’s inability to enjoy a rare grace period. “They are completely tone deaf,” texted one of the party’s top strategists. “How bout a few more victory laps on Mueller while you can get away with it? WTF is wrong with them?”
But seasoned Trump hands were hardly surprised at the rake Trump had placed his foot on. “And there’s something unusual about him stepping on a good message?” one former administration official said, laughing when asked about the timing of the announcement.
Some of the timing of Trump’s foray back into the health-care wars was dictated by his own Justice Department. On Monday evening, DoJ announced its support for U.S. District Court Judge Reed O’Connor’s ruling that because Obamacare’s individual mandate had been zeroed out, the entirety of the law was now constitutionally illegitimate. O’Connor’s judgment had been widely panned in legal circles and even the administration had, to that point, stopped short of saying all of Obamacare should be undone because of the mandate’s demise.
As such, the department’s new position set off alarm bells among Republicans who had spent much of the 2018 election cycle trying to alleviate voter concerns that their attempts at health care overhaul would—contrary to the likely outcomes—leave those with preexisting conditions vulnerable to the whims of private insurers. Fergus Cullen, the former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican State Committee and a critic of the party’s approach to Obamacare repeal, compared the rejoining of the debate to the famous battle-of-wits scene in The Princess Bride.
“The one,” Cullen stressed, “where he talks about the rules that you should never get into a land war in Asia.”
One of the party’s top pollsters told The Daily Beast that private data showed that the issue of health care had likely cost Republicans more than a dozen seats in the House in 2018.
“It was mostly all pre-existing conditions,” the pollster said. “Where they got the big run. Where they went from 20 seats to winning 40 seats, was on health care.”
Trump did little to alleviate the anxiety later on Tuesday, when he addressed Senate Republicans and reiterated his desire to tackle health-care reform again but, according to several senators, didn’t offer any specifics.
Asked if the president had outlined a plan on health care, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) simply said “no.” Several GOP lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol also avoided elaborating on details of a plan from their side, and deferred to the ongoing judicial process.
“I don’t think you can really rethink health care until you know for sure whether Obamacare continues to be part of it or not,” Blunt said, “and I think we’re ahead of ourselves to assume that the court would say that Obamacare is somehow no longer there.”
Should Republicans actually try again to pass Obamacare repeal legislation, they will do so in a decidedly more difficult political landscape than the one they enjoyed just two years ago. Any bill would have to make its way through a Democratic-run House, where many new lawmakers were elected not only on a pledge to protect Obamacare’s protections for those with pre-existing conditions and its expansion of Medicaid coverage, but on a promise to pursue even more aggressive reforms, such as additional government run insurance options or the widening of Medicare eligibility.
“I don't think it's going to pass the House,” Newt Gingrich, former House Speaker and an informal adviser to Trump, conceded to The Daily Beast.
Other allies of the president also saw potential hazard ahead. When asked if he thinks it’s wise for President Trump and the GOP to go back down this road on Obamacare, Barry Bennett, a former senior adviser to the Trump campaign, said it “depends which part. Pre-existing conditions [protections are] widely popular,” though Bennett said “everything else has been a failure.”
Those close to the president say that part of what motivates him on continuing his pursuit in scrapping the Affordable Care Act, even after past failures, is his inability to move beyond setbacks. When other party stalwarts or members of the Republican elite see a liability and political third rails, Trump simply sees the visceral satisfaction of erasing a cornerstone of the Obama legacy.
“It doesn’t surprise me because this president is a hyperbole in action every day, so if there’s an opportunity to end the whole Obamacare, ACA, regardless of the consequences of doing that, he’s fine,” said the former administration official. “Though, it speaks to the lack of anybody within the administration pushing back, and it gets fewer and fewer and fewer individuals who will speak with responsibility.”
The administration’s hope is that a court ruling invalidating Obamacare will compel those Democrats to compromise. But few GOP officials imagine that a resolution would be found shortly thereafter, if one could be found at all. And they figure that in the absence of a replacement bill, Trump would shoulder the blame.
“The average health-care recipient won’t say, ‘It’s the evil courts that struck it down,’” said Tom Davis, former head of the National Republican Campaign Committee. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, Trump struck it down.’ That’s the problem. So there has to be a Plan B. And with Democrats controlling the House you’ll get a Plan B- at best.”
Not every Republican was skittish on Trump’s renewed interest in tackling Obamacare repeal. Some of Trump’s biggest boosters on the Hill quickly pivoted from the DoJ’s filing on Monday night to raise questions about why Democrats were seizing on the health care issue at all.
“I think they’re doing anything they can to change it away from Bob Mueller,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), a close Trump confidant.
Others chose to explain the new turn in the Obamacare saga by waxing philosophically
“There’s an old Japanese proverb: Fall down seven times, get up eight. You just keep trying,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) about the seemingly never-ending quest to repeal the health-care law.
“Obamacare sucks,” he added. “We start with the principle of coverage of pre-existing conditions but frankly, we got nowhere to go but up… Imagine what we could accomplish if we channeled just 25 percent of the energy that everybody around here is focusing on the Mueller report to the health-care delivery system.”
—With additional reporting by Will Sommer and Jackie Kucinich.