Trump is the New Lando
By: Scott Jennings
There aren’t enough Republicans in Washington to repeal Obamacare.
Think about that sentence. Following a stunning election that saw Republicans win The White House and both chambers of Congress, there simply aren’t enough of them to unravel a law that has driven up health insurance premiums dramatically (plans are going up as much as 47 percent in Kentucky), spiked deductibles to the point that having health coverage has become virtually meaningless for some policyholders, and threatens, in part, to push the federal debt to $30 trillion in about a decade.
All this and more notwithstanding, there aren’t enough Republicans in Washington to repeal Obamacare.
Friday’s policy debacle pulled back the curtain on a reality six years in the making – the U.S. House of Representatives now resembles a European-style parliamentary system in which no single party has enough members to govern outright.
There are at least three parties in the House – Democrats (193), led by Nancy Pelosi of California; traditional Republicans (201), led by Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin; and the Freedom Caucus (36), led by Mark Meadows of North Carolina. Presently, there are five vacancies meaning 216 votes are required to pass a law.
Even though Ryan won reelection as Speaker in January with all but one Republican supporting him, clearly neither he nor President Trump has control of the three dozen Freedom Caucus members who derailed the GOP’s Obamacare’s repeal-and-replace plan.
Despite winning election under the Republican banner, Freedom Caucus members thought nothing of embarrassing a Republican president or of leaving in place a law universally despised by GOP voters. Repealing Obamacare was the single most important campaign promise made by the Republican Party for the last six years; failure to keep it could result in an “electoral bloodbath,” according to President Trump.
He’s not wrong—Republican voters will need to blame someone. GOP leaders will gamely attempt to blame Democrats, as President Trump has stated. But the blame lies with the Freedom Caucus. If not for their pledge to vote as a block, as reported by Politico, it is entirely plausible that Trump and Ryan could have convinced enough of them individually to pass the bill.
“Twenty-eight of the group’s roughly three dozen members took the plunge” and agreed that they would vote together no matter what, according to the report. The Trump/Ryan plan was about 25 votes short, meaning the Freedom Caucus pledge to stick together—functioning as a third party in the House—defeated the bill.
Functionally, Freedom Caucus opposition to the Trump/Ryan plan was no different than Democrat Nancy Pelosi’s. While the Freedom Caucus entered a coalition with Republicans to elect Ryan the Speaker, it has now joined a coalition with Pelosi to stop the Republican Party from fulfilling a campaign promise.
What does this mean for the rest of Trump’s agenda? For starters, his Legislative Affairs office must assume that plans for tax reform and infrastructure spending begin with no more than 201 votes (15 short of passage before vacancies are filled).
Where is Trump more likely to find additional votes? Among the emboldened Freedom Caucus, or perhaps the 12 Democrats who represent congressional districts won by Trump in 2016? Winning all 12 wouldn’t quite be enough, but it puts Trump a heck of a lot closer than he got on Friday. And with at least one Freedom Caucus member quitting the group over the health care fiasco, perhaps a few others can be had in future fights. While Democrats have little reason to work with Trump, the 12 who live in Trump districts may be as likely to sign on to a plan they helped shape as the Freedom Caucus members.
It might be wiser to negotiate with Democrats for the votes than with the Freedom Caucus, whose members proved they won’t take yes for an answer. President Trump must have felt like Lando Calrissian, the Star Wars character who, after making a deal with Darth Vader to keep the Empire out of his beloved Cloud City forever, eventually found Vader to be a less-than-trustworthy negotiating partner.
“I am altering the deal,” Vader intoned to an exasperated Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back. “Pray I don’t alter it any further.” Calrissian later grumbled: “This deal is getting worse all the time!”
Trump must now decide whether to strike back himself by recruiting and financially backing primary opponents for the Freedom Caucus members who stabbed him in the back. Many hail from rural areas where Trump remains quite popular, especially among GOP primary voters. One could imagine primary challengers pledging to stand with Trump instead of enabling Pelosi, as their opponent did. Trump, in fact, has already tweeted about it: “Democrats are smiling in D.C. that the Freedom Caucus, with the help of Club For Growth and Heritage, have saved Planned Parenthood & Ocare!”
Upending your life to run for Congress is no easy decision, but having presidential backing makes it much easier.
Lando Calrissian got his revenge by blowing up the second Death Star. Time will tell if Trump decides to annihilate the Freedom Caucus in similarly dramatic fashion.