White House

Health-Care Debacle Exposes the Monster in Trump

Never has a president been so willing to fail Americans simply to get his way.

What raw ambition looks like.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

With the Republicans' Plan C to vote for "repeal and delay" lasting about 12 hours or so before falling short of winning in the Senate, Donald Trump returned to his least attractive -- and most foolish -- position on health care: "We’re not going to own it. I’m not going to own it. I can tell you the Republicans are not going to own it. We’ll let Obamacare fail and then the Democrats are going to come to us.”

Let's put aside for now the extent to which the Affordable Care Act would "fail" without active measures by the White House and the Republican Congress to undermine the state marketplaces; for that matter, ignore the extent to which active Republican resistance, such as the various lawsuits against the law and the decision by many Republican governors to not expand Medicaid, is responsible for a fair number of problems in the first place. Let's just stipulate for the sake of argument that Trump is correct and the law is doomed if his administration and Republicans in Congress adopt a passive stance of watching and waiting. 

The first point is just how monstrous Trump is bragging he will be. As Brendan Nyhan says:

Imagine if Ronald Reagan had said after Congress prohibited him from aiding anti-Communists in Nicaragua: "Fine. I'll just surrender to the U.S.S.R. today. That'll show 'em!" 1 Or if Franklin Roosevelt, faced with sharp congressional resistance from isolationists, decided to disarm and allow the Axis to proceed at will. Or if George W. Bush had reacted to the first defeat of the Troubled Asset Relief Program in 2008 by publicly rooting for a worldwide economic meltdown. 

This is worse because Trump has, in fact, undermined the health exchanges, and he has threatened to do so further; indeed, one estimate says that the bulk of projected 2018 premium increases are the result of Trump and other Republican actions, not a deterioration in the markets -- in part because insurers are directly saying that's why their rates are going up. 

I certainly can't think of any president who directly promised to harm the American people unless his political opponents let him have his way.

The closest analogy might be the Republican Congresses in 1995 and 2011, which shut down the government in (unsuccessful) efforts to win policy battles with Democratic presidents. At least those episodes were conceived of as short-term actions with fairly limited costs. A better parallel might be Obama-era Republican threats to default on the debt by refusing to raise the debt limit. That, like Trump's boast on health care, was a threat to harm the American people if everyone didn't do what one side -- that didn't have the votes -- wanted. It's a fundamental violation, in my view, of political ethics, far worse than (quite bad) sundry conflicts of interest or failures to disclose tax returns. 

Trump is hardly the first politician to fall sadly short when it comes to ethics. So why aren't there other examples of presidents who threatened to harm the American people?

Because it's also self-defeating. Trump claims that voters will hold Barack Obama and the Democrats responsible for health care's problems, but everything we know about retrospective voting says that outside of hard-core Republicans, who will back Trump no matter what, voters will blame the current president for anything that goes wrong, fairly or unfairly. Thus the many voters who blamed Obama and the Democrats in 2010 for the state of the economy. Thus the scattered studies of voters who turn against incumbents after totally unrelated events such as storms, losses by local sports teams and even shark attacks.

We could argue all day about who voters should hold responsible if they don't like their health insurance, but the evidence says they will blame the incumbent president and his party.  

Fortunately, most politicians realize that and try hard to produce policies that will benefit their constituents. Sure, they'll also make speeches in which they blame their predecessors for anything going wrong, but they'll actively attempt to fix the problem, because they know that buck-passing rhetoric won't work very well. 

Of course, most politicians also entered public life at least in part to improve the conditions of the nation. But even those with nothing but raw ambition are smart enough to at least pretend (in their rhetoric) that they care about voters' well-being, and smart enough to know that the way to satisfy that ambition involves keeping voters happy.

Most politicians. But evidently not this one. 

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

  1. Granted, Reagan's eventual decision to aid the Contras illegally wasn't the correct decision either, but it wasn't monstrous. 

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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