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Virgil: Like Reagan, Trump Can Bounce Back—and So Can His Agenda

The most important point to make about the failure of the American Health Care Act (AHCA) on Friday afternoon is that it’s not the final word on the Trump presidency—much as some in the media might hope that it is.  

Yes, The New York Times called the bill’s failure a “humiliating defeat” for the administration, and yes, The Washington Post labeled it “a big embarrassment,” and yes, Politico dubbed it a “staggering setback.”  Without a doubt, many pundits will be clucking, chortling, and end-zone dancing for days and weeks to come.  

Yet a look at recent presidential history tells us that such political obituaries are almost always premature; the presidency is a resilient institution.  

As White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said on Friday afternoon, the Trump administration still believes that he has plenty of strength to pursue other priorities, notably, tax reform.

In addition, Virgil remembers the wise words of Ronald Reagan, who had his share of defeats—and more than his share of victories.  Quoting an old Scottish ballad, he liked to say, in tough situations, “We are hurt; we are not slain. We’ll lie us down and rest a bit, and then we’ll fight again.”  That was the optimistic, don’t-let-‘em-get-you-down spirit that made Reagan the effective leader that he was.   

But first, a brief word about AHCA.  It was a piece of legislation that nobody truly loved.  It wasn’t ideologically pure enough for libertarian Republicans, and it wasn’t compassionately comprehensive enough for moderate Republicans.  And yet since nothing about AHCA was acceptable to pro-Obamacare Democrats, it was entirely up to Republicans to see if they could muster the near-unanimity needed to pass it.   Yet in the end, despite all the effort, AHCA pleased neither the House Freedom Caucus, nor what might be called the “Coverage Caucus.”  

And at the same time, as a matter of legislative craftsmanship, much of the bill was dubious.  In the words of Reason’s Peter Suderman:

The initial bill was awkwardly constructed on its own, a hodgepodge of disconnected policy ideas that relied on a system of tax-based subsidies and regulations that mirrored the essential structure of Obamacare in ways that, if anything, made even less sense than the health law the AHCA was supposed to replace.

So perhaps the true wonder is how it got as far as it got.  Sometimes, legislation takes on a life of its own—or, perhaps one could say, a zombified death-in-life.  That is, a bill shambles along, unloved and unlovable, until someone forces the issue.  In this case, it was President Trump himself who pulled the ripcord on the legislation, to mix a metaphor.  He chose to cut his losses, and he was wise to do so.  (No doubt most House Republicans breathed a grateful sigh of relief.) 

In fact, the President had often expressed skepticism about AHCA, as well as the strategy of leading off 2017 with Obamacare repeal.  As Trump said as recently as March 15, “The Republicans, frankly, are putting themselves in a very bad position.  I tell this to [Health and Human Services Secretary] Tom Price all the time.”  That is, the Republicans would be better off leaving Obamacare alone, letting it collapse on its own—without getting GOP fingerprints on it.  And in fact, on Friday afternoon, Trump told at least one reporter that he would revert to that stance; that is, let the Democrats, who voted for Obamacare in the first place, “own” the legislation. 

Indeed, it’s quite possible that the GOP missed a bullet by not enacting AHCA.  On Friday the 24th, a shudder went through Republican ranks when Breitbart’s Neil Munro reported on a new Democratic poll, purporting to show that when voters heard the details of the AHCA as it would have played out in the months and years ahead, they shifted 34 points in their assessment, from mild approval to sharp disapproval.  To be sure, it was a partisan Democratic poll, but still, we might ask ourselves: Have we heard anybody, really, saying anything good about the legislation?  So with a political albatross around its neck, what would it have been like for the GOP in the 2018 midterms?  

Some will say, of course, that the failed health-insurance-reform effort these past two months counts as an albatross, too—but it’s only a small albatross, and in any case, it’s an albatross in the rear-view mirror. 

So as we say goodbye to AHCA, one is reminded of what was said about a deceased character in the Shakespeare play Macbeth:Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.”

Okay, so where does this leave the Trump administration?  Is it, as gleeful critics are proclaiming, a shipwreck?  A train wreck?  Or merely a car wreck?   Actually, maybe none of those.  Virgil remembers other presidents who had early disappointments in the first six months of their presidencies, and, as we shall see, in almost all cases, they bounced back. Let’s take a look: 

Jimmy Carter.  In 1977, the Carter administration issued a “hit list” of public-works water projects that he wanted to kill; in response, the Democrats on Capitol Hill killed Carter’s hit list.  Those were the days, we might note, when most Democrats supported big New Deal-ish infrastructure projects—that is, before the Democratic Party was Greened. 

Ronald Reagan.  In 1981, the Reagan administration issued a plan for deep Social Security cuts.  It was the sort of proposal that only an ideologue could love; practicing politicians reacted with horror.  Indeed, in May of that year, the Republican-controlled Senate voted 96-0 against the cuts.

George H.W. Bush.  The Bush 41 White House chose former senator John Tower to be secretary of defense; on March 10, 1989, the Senate rejected Tower’s nomination.  

Bill Clinton.  In 1993, the Clintonians had the idea of a “BTU tax” (British Thermal Unit, a measurement of energy).  The tax was complicated and scary-sounding, as well as far-reaching; such proposals never play well with the public— same as AHCA in our time.  The BTU tax passed the Democratic-controlled House, but it was declared dead in the Democratic Senate on June 8 1993

George W. Bush.  On May 24, 2001, Bush 43 suffered a serious reverse when Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords switched from Republican to Democrat, thereby flipping control of the Senate from R to D. 

Barack Obama.  In 2009, the Obama administration pushed the “cap-and-trade,” which made Clinton’s BTU tax seem simple by comparison.  Cap-and-trade was a complicated financial scheme to control carbon dioxide; critics dubbed it “Enron in the sky.”  The misbegotten legislation passed the Democratic House on June 26, and that’s as far as it got; as with the BTU tax 16 years before, cap-and-trade died in the Democratic Senate.  

In their time, each of these reverses was seen as a big deal.  That is, pundits lined up to say that the “wheels are coming off of the administration,” and on and on.  And while the pundits might not have been completely wrong, they mostly weren’t right, because in five of the six cases, the afflicted president made a recovery.  (Only Carter failed to recover; in 1980, he lost to Reagan in a landslide.) 

In fact, in four of the six cases cited above—Reagan, Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama— the president overcame the early defeat and went on to win a second term.  Yes, the president’s party might have been walloped in the next midterm election (Reagan in 1982, Clinton in 1994, and so on), but by the end of four years, the administration had recovered sufficiently to win another four years. 

We might pause over one of those two-term presidents—the greatest of this half-dozen—and learn some key lessons. That would be, of course, Ronald Reagan. 

Having dug a hole for himself on Social Security in ’81, Reagan swiftly moved to dig himself out.  He persuaded the Democrats that Social Security faced problems that did, in fact, need fixing, and so he worked with Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill to create the bipartisan Greenspan Commission, charged with coming up with a fix.  

The Greenspan Commission deliberated all through 1981 and 1982, and then, in 1983, when passions over Social Security had cooled, it issued its compromise report and put the retirement issue to bed for nearly a quarter-century.  (In 2005, George W. Bush had the not-so-good idea of  partially privatizing Social Security, with disastrous consequences, but that’s a tale for another time.)   

Yet in Reagan’s day, the Greenspan Commission was not regarded as a work of art, but it was seen as artful work.  And in the meantime, Reagan, not letting himself be distracted, carried on with the essential work of his presidency, including tax cuts and tax reform, a big defense buildup, and the appointment of conservative judges.  And, of course, the Gipper was re-elected in 1984 in a thundering landslide. 

Thus the 40th President entered into the pantheon of American immortals: Yes, he made mistakes, but he knew how to recover from them, and keep his eye on the agenda ahead.  History smiles on such leaders.  

Now it’s Trump’s turn.  Just like his predecessors, he’s had his early—and painful—baptism of fire.   

So now he must lick his wounds, learn his lessons—and suit up for the next round.     

As long as the subject is something other than health insurance, he has bright prospects.

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