Here is Trump, at the beginning of his presidential term, in the midst of the need to do something with health care reform, pinned by campaign promises and like-minded Congressional majorities looking to move swiftly on the matter. Obama also faced the same pressures to get a bill over the goal line. Health care reform was one of his most notable campaign pledges and it took a hard-won Senate super-majority ― which only finally came about with the defection from the GOP of Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Penn.) and the eventual arrival of Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), coupled with Democratic domination in the House.
It is, perhaps, a very narrow comparison, but it sits there waiting to be made. Right now, Trump faces the same urgency, the same complications, and the same uncertainty about what can be wrought after the various interests of an often fractious pack of lawmakers are balanced and consensus reached. But there’s one notable absence from today’s proceedings. Where, pray tell, is the political peanut gallery calling on Trump to make his offering at the holy temple of bipartisanship?
It’s worth pointing out because during the Obama era, the demand that he remain true to bipartisanship was constant. The entire notion of presidential “leadership,” during Obama’s tenure, was entirely contingent upon his willingness to break with those that had voted him into office and deliver policies that they would almost certainly despise, like deep and immiserating cuts to earned benefit programs like Social Security and Medicare.
If Obama wasn’t trying to reach some sort of across-the-aisle grand bargain, then he was failing, in the eyes of pundits. And whenever Obama managed to deliver on middle-of-the-road policies, well ― those same pundits moved the goalposts. Journalist and political commentator Greg Sargent called it “the centrist dodge,” and it, too, was a constant feature of the Obama era.
During the long and tortuous legislative process that eventually brought us the Affordable Care Act, the bipartisanship police pulled double-shifts on their beat, raising a hue and cry whenever it looked like developments weren’t going to yield the optimal center-right health care package. The media practically fulminated against the so-called “public option,” dismissing the strong and consistent public support for it out of hand. Whenever it seemed like the Democrats might have to take a parliamentary short-cut ― like the brief flirtation with “deem and pass,” the Beltway press erupted in a chorus of disapproval.
The commentariat’s benchmark for what constituted a properly legislated health care reform bill was probably best articulated by the late Washington Post journalist David Broder, who suggested that anything that managed to accrue less than 70 votes in the Senate could not possibly be deemed legitimate.
Of course, in making these specific demands, the media’s bipartisanship fanboys had a pretty powerful ally ― Obama himself, who seemed to feel an otherworldly compulsion to chase the favor of Beltway pundits.
During the run-up to the passage of Obamacare, the 44th president was solicitous, almost to a fault, of bipartisan involvement, beginning with the fact that his own policy vision was essentially cribbed wholesale from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the GOP’s 2012 presidential candidate. But Obama didn’t necessarily demand to be the sole solutioneer on the health care innovation mission. In fact, the whole reason the legislative process was so long and tortuous was because Obama encouraged other ideas and spent a considerable amount of time trying to win the votes of Republicans.
That’s how, alongside Obama’s own plan, the late Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) were permitted to develop their own plan simultaneously. Also receiving blessings was Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and his bipartisan “Gang Of Six,” which ultimately failed to do much more beyond filling the Montana senator’s coffers with the money of health care lobbyists.
Along the way, Obama bent over backward trying to win the approval of Republicans like Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and then-Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) ― to no avail. The only thing these sops to bipartisanship earned Obama was the extra stress of watching Republican Scott Brown win a Massachusetts Senate seat, which briefly imperiled the entire effort. And even after Brown arrived in D.C., Obama wouldn’t give up hope on winning over some GOP legislators. It wasn’t until his February 2010 Health Care Summit at Blair House wrapped up, having failed to break the impasse, that a weary White House accepted that the administration would be going it alone.
Obama was probably taking these actions because he had, perhaps foolishly, promised to establish a “new tone” in Washington, D.C., and reach out to Republicans on policy matters. His urge to satisfy the High Priests of Bipartisanship brought the Obama administration to some of its most dangerous points, such as the near-disastrous legitimization of policy bargaining over the debt ceiling, as well as the folly of the Budget Control Act ― including its doomed-to-fail super committee and the budget sequestration that was the consequence of that failure. In fact, it was Obama himself who gave Broder his 70-votes-or-bust ammunition when he said he’d “rather have 70 votes in the Senate for a bill that gives him 85 percent of what he wants rather than a 100 percent satisfactory bill that passes 52 to 48.”
Trump has never really promised bipartisanship to anybody. That alone might explain why there hasn’t been a similar call from pundits. Well, that and the fact that the former reality show personality has given little indication that flattering pundits is one of his concerns. This is probably the best feature of Trump’s presidency; his complete disregard for pursuing a path that never made any of his policies more effective, all for the sake of pleasing a gaggle of wags who never gave him credit for the effort.
Still, it’s interesting that no one is exactly beating those drums, during the Trump era, if only because the worst features of his presidency ― his ignorance, extremism, and serial norm-breaking practically begs the bipartisanship scolds to get off their fainting couches and wag a finger or two. It’s the sort of environment you’d expect institutionalists to loudly make their case, even if those institutions are largely superficial.
But one thing that those who insisted on a push-to-the-center during the Obamacare legislative process can arguably hang their hats on is the fact that this push was probably what the process ultimately needed.
No, he did not win over any Republicans to vote for the Affordable Care Act ― but the Democratic caucus Obama needed to win over was far from homogenous. Ultimately, to get enough votes to the Affordable Care Act signed into law, Obama had to satisfy former Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh and Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich), Democrat-turned-independent Sen. Joe Lieberman and then-Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). (After which, he still had to take Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) up in Air Force One to convince him to not abandon the bill over all of these concessions.)
And this is something else that Trump suddenly has in common with Obama ― assuming that regular order in the Senate is going to hold, the only way Congressional Republicans can advance their repeal-and-replace goals is to do so partially, using budget reconciliation. But this move would merely zero out the funding mechanisms for the Affordable Care Act ― it wouldn’t “replace” the bill for the long term, and over the short term, it could create a market of notable uncertainty for insurers and hospitals.
Trump would need Democratic votes to advance his replacement plan any further than that. So there’s never been a better time for that choir of Bipartisan Angels to strike up a chorus. And yet, the only voice to take up the song is Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), who is suggesting that Trump take an entirely different approach. “If you don’t get both parties together, nothing is sustainable,” he told “Meet The Press” Chuck Todd Sunday.
Kasich, of course, has ulterior motives, having brought the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion to Ohio. Nevertheless, in the current alignment, Kasich is right ― no meaningful replacement for the Affordable Care Act is getting passed without Democratic votes. And if the old Beltway ways still matter to anyone, well, we’re much further away from that mythical 70 vote threshold.
This is not to say that the drive for bipartisanship in outcomes is always preferable. It’s still very possible for 70 senators in this town to cock things up pretty badly. And bipartisan majorities are more apt than not to form a consensus around some really terrible ideas. But there’s no other direction for Trump to go in at the moment where health care is concerned. It’s either pass a bill with Democrat Senate votes or do nothing ― and doing nothing comes with risks. Maybe Trump reckons that the changes wrought through budget reconciliation will force Democrats’ hand. But maybe Democrats will simply opt to leave Trump on the hook for any unintended consequences.
Knowing that, it sure seems weird that the people who spent the past eight years going blue in the face, insisting that Obama had to “lead” by constantly reaching for bipartisan compromise, even when he didn’t need to, have gone curiously silent now.
Maybe all “bipartisanship” ever meant was that Democrats had to do all the compromising, and not the reverse. I suppose it’s not surprising.
POSTSCRIPT: In a case of either lousy or impeccable timing, the first big shout for a bipartisan approach to Trump’s dilemma came in while this piece was being edited. Newsmax editor and Trump confidant Christopher Ruddy advises his friend to “ditch [the] freedom caucus” and “seek [a] bipartisan plan.” Referring to the plan of House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as a “political death wish,” Ruddy outlines a seven-point plan that he imagines can achieve bipartisan support, that blends expanded Medicaid, tort reform, and health savings accounts.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.