Andrew Cohen, a journalist, author and former Globe U.S. correspondent, is a Fulbright Scholar in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.
On April 17, 1961, John F. Kennedy authorized an invasion of Fidel Castro’s Cuba by an army of émigrés trained and funded by the Central Intelligence Agency. Outmanned, outgunned and outflanked, the rebels were cut up over the next three days at the Bay of Pigs.
For Kennedy, the invasion was a catastrophe; it did not matter that the plan was his predecessor’s and that the intelligence was wrong. Sensing weakness in his untested counterpart, Nikita Khrushchev built a wall in Berlin that August and placed nuclear missiles in Cuba the next year.
Kennedy took responsibility, reviewed what went wrong and learned critical lessons. But the Bay of Pigs defined his first erratic year in office and became synonymous with an early, stunning reversal in a young presidency characterized by overweening confidence.
On March 24, 2017, Donald Trump suffered a monumental failure in the repeal and replacement of Obamacare. This offers its own teachable moment, if he chooses to understand it.
Philosophically, Mr. Trump never shared the antipathy of Congressional Republicans on universal health care but shrewdly exploited it to win the nomination and the election. Despite his recent denials, he promised to fix it in a special session of Congress to be convened immediately after his inauguration.
On Friday, it blew up in his face. Metaphorically, his enterprise failed as spectacularly as the mission of those exiles on the beach. It’s a staggering humiliation – threatening Mr. Trump’s legislative agenda, his stature as president and his image as a rainmaker. It’s his Bay of Pigs.
No one died here – though experts warned many Americans would if they lost their health insurance under the proposed bill – and there is no danger to national security. Unlike Mr. Kennedy, however, Mr. Trump takes no responsibility. He is congenitally incapable of self-reflection. It recalls those Bourbon kings who “learn nothing and forget nothing.”
When Paul Ryan refused to allow a vote on the bill, he ensured that Obamacare will remain in place. Mr. Ryan euphemistically called it “a disappointment” and “a setback”. Chirpy in his cheap suit, he mused professorially about the perils of the Republicans moving from opposition to government, as if Americans should feel sorry for them.
The Republicans had seven years to craft a plan. Theatrically, they passed some 60 bills repealing Obamacare they knew Barack Obama would veto. They promised to replace the law even as the Supreme Court upheld it and Americans embraced it.
On their big day, they had performance anxiety. Mr. Ryan said as much, but not even he would blame the Democrats. Mr. Trump did. The buck does not stop with him, he said, but with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.
It was their fault. Not the Republican moderates who thought the ramshackle bill went too far or the Republican conservatives who thought it went not far enough. It was the Democrats who refused to acquiesce in the abolition of the landmark social welfare program of a generation they had created, at huge political cost. Imagine.
“I am the chief officer of this government,” said JFK, accepting responsibility for the Bay of Pigs. “Victory has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan.” His popularity surged, which left him incredulous.
Humility is foreign to Mr. Trump. Victory has only one father and defeat is for Democrats. His first 100 days may be the worst in the modern presidency. After Friday’s debacle, he sputtered that the Democrats will come to him begging to save Obamacare, which, he insists, is at once “imploding” and “exploding”, as if that were chemically possible.
Privately, Kennedy was incensed with the CIA and threatened to “scatter it to the winds.” From then on he doubted official intelligence and distrusted experts, particularly his generals. He started thinking less of winning the Cold War than ending it.
Privately, Mr. Trump is said to regret accepting Mr. Ryan’s bill and beginning with health care rather than tax reform and infrastructure spending. Ignorant of the details – which dismayed Republicans – the dealmaker now sloughs off his inability to move minds.
This feckless, factless president looks more and more like a dilettante. Inept, impulsive and boundlessly boastful, he is hobbled by congressional inquiries, court injunctions and plunging popularity. Institutions – the courts, the states, the media, public opinion, recalcitrant Republicans and determined Democrats – are constraining him.
Health care, Mr. Trump’s biggest boast, is now his greatest defeat. Don’t buy that Obamacare is the beginning of his “political education.” With no willingness to learn, there will be more losses on political beaches.Report Typo/Error
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