How Paul Ryan played Donald Trump

Paul Ryan and Trump | Getty Images

Donald Trump promised to be a different kind of president. He was a populist fighting on behalf of the “forgotten man,” taking on the GOP establishment, draining the Washington swamp, protecting Medicaid from cuts, vowing to cover everyone with health care and make the government pay for it. He was a pragmatic businessman who was going to make Washington work for you, the little guy, not the ideologues and special interests.

Instead, Trump has become a pitchman for Paul Ryan and his agenda. He’s spent the past week fighting for a health care bill he didn’t campaign on, didn’t draft, doesn’t understand, doesn’t like to talk about, and can’t defend. Rather than forcing the Republican establishment to come around to his principles, he’s come around to theirs — with disastrous results.

Democrats don’t like this bill. Independents don’t like this bill. Conservatives don’t like this bill. Moderates don’t like this bill. All the energy behind the American Health Care Act is coming from inside the GOP congressional establishment — and now from Trump himself. In a sense, this Matt Drudge tweet says it all:

Sixty days into his presidency, Trump has lashed himself to a Paul Ryan passion project that’s polling at 56-17 percent against. As political scientist Ryan Enos drolly observed, “in a hyper-partisan political climate, it’s actually an accomplishment to write legislation this unpopular.” Nor is Trump emerging unscathed: Polls show his approval rating falling into the 30s — and that’s before he’s taken away health insurance from a single person.

 The AHCA breaks Trump’s promises to his base so fulsomely, so completely, that when told by Tucker Carlson on Fox News “that counties that voted for you, middle-class and working-class counties, would do far less well under the bill,” Trump was reduced to saying, simply: “Oh, I know.”

Donald Trump has become Paul Ryan with orange hair. How did it happen?

How Trumpism used to sound

In September, Donald Trump sat down with Scott Pelley of 60 Minutes and told the world he was a different kind of Republican.

“Everybody’s got to be covered,” he said, referring to his health care plan. “This is an un-Republican thing for me to say, because a lot of times they say, ‘No, no, the lower 25 percent that can’t afford private.’ But I am going to take care of everybody. I don’t care if it costs me votes or not.”

“Who pays for it?” asked Pelley.

“The government’s gonna pay for it,” Trump said, and he went on to promise that people on Trumpcare “can have their doctors, they can have plans, they can have everything.”

This was the Donald Trump who unexpectedly won the Republican primary and then beat the odds to become president. He was a Republican, yes, but a different kind of Republican — a Republican who owed Ryan nothing, who wasn’t friends with the Bush clan, who liked construction workers more than he liked Wall Street executives, who wanted the government to give people health care.

I don’t mean to whitewash Trump. His populism often edged into xenophobia and bigotry. But it seemed real enough — even as his campaign policy team churned out standard-issue Republican fare, everything he did and said suggested he had very unusual instincts on some issues, particularly health care. Here was a guy who had praised single-payer in the past and promised to protect Medicare and Medicaid from cuts. Whatever Trumpism was, it sure as hell wasn’t Ryanism.

And then it became Ryanism.

This is what happens when you don’t sweat, or even understand, the details

How did Ryan persuade Trump to adopt his bill? The truth is, it doesn’t appear to have been very hard.

On Wednesday, the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza published a series of messages from a House Freedom Caucus source laying out the state of play on the American Health Care Act. “Don’t source to me,” the person wrote, “but R’s astonish[ed] how in over his head Trump is. He seems to neither get the politics nor the policy of this.”

Recently, I read every public statement Trump made on health care since the unveiling of the AHCA. It was striking how obviously thin Trump’s knowledge of the issue was. His standard riff veered from complaints about Obamacare to complaints about how Democrats wouldn’t work with him to vague promises about how great everything would be after the House plan passed. To this day, Trump has never made a substantive case for why this bill would make people’s lives better.

Politico reports that Trump doesn’t even like talking about health care — and his staffers have started, amazingly, to see that as a good thing:

Several people with knowledge of the discussions said having Trump on the golf course wasn’t a bad thing for his team, who could wade more into the nitty-gritty and have “real talk” with the conservatives. They fear that when he meets with legislators or interest groups that he’ll promise them too much — or change the terms under discussion altogether. “It’s easier to negotiate sometimes without Trump,” one adviser said.

This is the problem with not knowing or caring much about the details of policy — it’s easy to get spun by people who do know and care, and it’s easy to get trapped in processes that people are building for their benefit rather than yours. And that seems to be what happened to Trump. For instance, the New York Times reports that Trump barely paid attention when he agreed to put health reform first:

He approved the agenda putting health care first late last year, almost in passing, in meetings with Mr. Ryan, Vice President Mike Pence and Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff.

Pence and Priebus persuaded Trump to make Rep. Tom Price his health and human services secretary. Pence, Priebus, and Price are all Ryanists, not Trumpists, and so when Ryan emerged with a health care plan that reflected their views, they told Trump it was a great deal and he should work for its passage.

It’s an interesting question why the plan Ryan concocted is such a shoddy piece of work, and why Ryan didn’t spend more time building stakeholder support or mapping out a sensible process. But it’s not particularly surprising that once Ryan had a plan, Trump was persuaded to sign off on it — the people to whom he’s outsourced these decisions share Ryan’s instincts and ideology, not Trump’s, and Trump isn’t knowledgeable enough or interested enough to question their judgments.

How Trump became the fall guy for Ryan’s bill

Ryan’s stroke of genius, however, has been flattering Trump’s vision of himself as a dealmaker through the process, and amping up Trump’s sense of the personal stake he has in the AHCA’s success.

On Monday, Politico reported that “members of Speaker Paul Ryan’s team, trying to appeal to Trump’s ego and deal-making sensibilities, have begun calling him the ‘closer’ or the ‘ultimate closer.’”

In an interview, Ryan amped up both the flattery and the pressure. “I’ve never seen, since I’ve been in Congress — and this is the fourth president I’ve served with — I’ve never seen a president as deep and involved and engaged on passing the signature legislation as this one,” he said.

And that’s how a bill that Trump didn’t campaign on and didn’t write and doesn’t understand become his “signature legislation,” and that’s how its possible failure could be recast as proof that Trump isn’t the closer he promised to be, even when he’s maximally involved in the effort.

I am not suggesting Ryan is some kind of political genius. The problems here lie with Trump. He is strongly committed to his personal project of being the president, being seen as a great dealmaker, and appearing on television, but he is weakly committed to his ideological project and obviously uninterested in the details of legislation.

Even in the best of scenarios, and with the most able of leaders, changing the ideology of a political party is a difficult effort. But Trump didn’t even try, and now he has burnt much of the political capital he had on Paul Ryan’s health care plan — there is no one, after this, who thinks his salesmanship unstoppable or his commitment to his own agenda unshakable, and that weakens his ability to push the Republican Party to places it doesn’t already want to go.

We are 60 days into Trump’s presidency, and Trumpism is already being strangled by Ryanism. As Drudge wrote, sometimes the swamp drains you.

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