Politics

Trump's Health-Care Failure and the End of Fake News

When it came time to govern, his false claims couldn't get the job done.

That didn't go so well.

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Republicans' failed attempt to enact the American Health Care Act had at least one result: fake news suffered a very real loss.

One common fear after President Donald Trump's inauguration was that the agenda of the following four years would be driven by fake news -- an administration of "alternative facts." In his first press conference, White House press secretary Sean Spicer doubled down on President Trump's inaccurate claim that the crowd for his inauguration was the largest in history. The president has also repeated his unsubstantiated (and roundly debunked) claim that, were it not for millions of fraudulent votes, he would have won the popular vote in the election.

That kind of talk works, as far as it goes. It gets attention. It stokes emotion. It distracts from the administration's substantive failures. But that kind of talk doesn't get any work done. When it came time to generate an actual bill, which could pass both chambers of Congress and hold up to judicial review … well, that's when bluster sputters out and the gears of lawmaking grind into action.

Since the first introduction of the text of the American Health Care Act this month, the debate over it was strikingly traditional. If there was one central issue, it wasn't an internet hoax like a specious claim about the president's country of birth, but rather a score from the Congressional Budget Office -- a bona fide arbiter of real information. While there were some early suggestions that CBO scores can be inaccurate, in the end, the office's projection (that the Republican plan would cost 24 million people their insurance) carried more and more weight.

Key constituencies figured out the impact that the bill would have on their members. The House Freedom Caucus correctly noted that the AHCA would leave much of the core of Obamacare intact, violating their campaign pledges to fully repeal it. Moderate Republicans in the House noted that the bill would hurt so many voters, and some Republican senators pointed out the impact the bill would have on some of their lower-income, older constituents. In the hours leading up to the bill being pulled on Friday afternoon, Trump ally and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, in an effort to get on the right side of the effort, accurately tweeted the low 17 percent support for the AHCA as found in a Quinnipiac poll.

The president's media outreach immediately after the House pulled the bill was noteworthy as well. His first two calls were not to propagandists or even Trump-friendly sources, but rather to the very-real-news Washington Post and New York Times. The press conferences held that afternoon by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Trump were straightforward acknowledgements of failure with no attempts to sugarcoat what had happened.

There's a lesson here as attention now shifts to tax reform. Fake news may have been effective over the past seven years as Republicans fired up their base and blocked President Barack Obama's agenda. But with Republicans in control of all branches of government, they have to govern instead of critique. The most generous assessment is that their agenda is falling flat.

Some voters bought into Republicans' false criticism of Obamacare, but apparently very few bought into Trump's false praise of the alternative. When lawmakers try to take away their health insurance, voters notice.

Tax reform, like health care, inherently involves trade-offs that create winners and losers. A border adjustment tax would hurt importers and retailers like Wal-Mart. Those businesses won't be swayed by false claims, and voters will notice when prices rise and wages fall. Voters like the abstract promise to eliminate loopholes that favor special interests, but when the possibility becomes concrete, voters realize that they will be footing the bill. When it's time to legislate, details matter -- and details trump fake news.

The post-inauguration fears now seem to have been a bit off. Trump's false claims signified not the beginning of a fake news era, but the end of one.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Conor Sen at csen9@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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