As Washington clears away the rubble from the failed effort to overturn former president Barack Obama's health-care program, Republicans, Democrats and the White House are examining how to move forward – perhaps with surprising conclusions.
This process of evaluation is occurring in three dimensions, as President Donald Trump has concluded that he no longer can depend solely, if at all, on congressional Republicans as the locomotive to pull his policy train to its next destinations. Indeed, there are early indications that the more the administration reviews the record of presidents who have achieved history-altering measures, the more the Trump team may conclude that it must return to the profile that brought him to the White House in the first place: as an insurgent with no ties to the establishment of the party that provided him with its nomination.
In a posting that appeared late Monday on the website of the right-leaning Hoover Institution at Stanford University, the conservative research fellow David Davenport argued that the "failure of the majority party to drive yet another party-line vote on a major domestic policy may actually force those in power to pay attention to deliberation and consensus-building."
Moreover, there also are clear signals that Mr. Trump and his advisers have concluded that conventional political calculations may not apply to Mr. Trump. Just as Ronald Reagan prevailed – particularly with budget and tax measures – when the 40th president put aside the cautious counsel of the party elders to "let Reagan be Reagan," the 45th President may be advantaged by a move to "let Trump be Trump." Mr. Trump is an unconventional figure who, like Mr. Reagan, once was a Democrat.
From the very moment when it became apparent that the Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare would fail, Mr. Trump indicated that he would wait for – and indeed would welcome – Democratic initiatives to repair the health-care plan his predecessor signed seven years ago. The most ignored warning signals in Washington: the quiet worries by devout Democrats that substantial adjustments in Obamacare are required, perhaps even this year.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Monday that Mr. Trump was "absolutely" willing to work with Democrats, adding: "The President is eager to get to 218 [House votes to assure a majority] on a lot of his initiatives, whether it's tax reform or infrastructure. There's a lot of things and I think he's going to be willing to listen to other voices on the other side to figure out if people want to work with him to get these big things done to make Washington work to enhance the lives of American people then he's going to work with them."
Already Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, has said – pointedly, on a Fox News interview Sunday – that Mr. Trump "is not going to be a partisan president." The Priebus view is all the more credible as the White House reflects on last week's health-care debacle, where the President faced rebellions from the large, muscular right side of the Republican Party; the smaller but vocal and prominent left side of the party; and even from a leading moderate, Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, the influential chairman of the powerful House appropriations committee who had sided with the Trump administration in every vote this year.
The result is that Republicans are more emboldened than ever to divert from the White House, the conservative House rebels in the Freedom Caucus especially so. They toppled a Republican speaker, John Boehner of Ohio, in 2015 and now have endangered his successor, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
For his part, Mr. Trump never will consider them team players again. He acceded to many of their demands, and then grew irritated as the demands escalated, warping the original proposal and rendering it unacceptable to others and incompatible with his constituency of the poor and alienated blue-collar workers. Ideological rigidity has never been part of the Trump brand, and now it is apparent that his contempt for true believers, rather than artful deal makers, is at an all-time high.
The battles ahead are on tax overhaul and infrastructure spending, the latter being especially attractive to Democrats, who otherwise generally remain opponents of the Trump agenda.
But an infrastructure initiative, which would appeal to Democrats because it would create thousands of blue-collar jobs, is especially unappealing to the very Republican conservatives who defeated the health-care bill because they already are portraying it as a big-spending symbol of government excess. But as a candidate, Mr. Trump spoke as much about deteriorating bridges and roads – and the need for new, sparkling airports to rival those in the Middle East and Asia – as he did about health care. He'll find more allies among Democrats than among Republicans when he chooses to push ahead with this initiative.
Mr. Reagan prevailed in the last major tax overhaul, in 1986, with a gaudy show of bipartisanship, inviting Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, the Democratic chairman of the House ways and means committee, where tax matters originate in the U.S. Congress, to share the spotlight, the work – and the credit.
Many of the tax initiatives being discussed in the Trump White House have stirred strong Republican opposition; GOP Senator David Perdue of Georgia, a onetime businessman, already has distributed a letter to his colleagues arguing that the "border adjustment tax," which would affect trade with Canada as well as other U.S. trading partners, is "regressive, hammers consumers and shuts down economic growth."
Meanwhile, many of the tax proposals supported by the Republican health-care apostates favour the very interest groups Mr. Trump pilloried in his campaign, which was aimed primarily at lower-income Americans. Those voters would not profit from corporate tax breaks nor from the elimination of both the inheritance tax, which affects estates above $5.49-million (U.S.), and the alternative minimum tax, an arcane income-tax surcharge that generally affects married couples with joint incomes well over $80,000.
Mr. Trump and most Republicans favour a tax cut, but the debate will be over who benefits from tax overhaul. If Mr. Trump returns to his populist roots, he could find ready support from Democrats, who otherwise will pillory the President as seeking tax relief for the wealthy; the left-leaning Tax Policy Centre estimates that only 5,200 people would benefit from the elimination of the inheritance tax this year. Only a tiny fraction of that tiny group voted for Mr. Trump.
"The President gets the idea that Republicans don't owe him much," said Andrew Smith, a polling expert at the University of New Hampshire. "The Republican members of Congress won independent of his election and are willing to stand up to him, so he may as well try to work with other people. But the President also was elected by people who have little in common with these Republican conservatives."