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Trumponomics Daily—Thursday, March 23

In late November 2008 — weeks after Barack Obama won the presidency and amid the throes of a history-bending financial meltdown that threatened the very solvency of the U.S. economic system — then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell gathered his fellow Senate Republicans for a meeting. His purpose was not to discuss how the GOP would position itself in the debate over emergency measures already taking shape among the outgoing Bush administration, the incoming Obama team, and Congressional Democratic leaders. Rather, McConnell wanted to talk to his flock about what he knew would follow that economic triage — a Democratic drive to realize the party’s ambition, deferred since the Lyndon Johnson era, of extending heath insurance to Americans universally, or as near as possible to it.

The GOP had just suffered a stinging defeat at the polls up and down the ballot, and the instinct among many of the Republican survivors limping back to the Capitol was capitulation. McConnell had a different idea. His message to his members that day was simple: Their only remaining advantage lay in hanging together. By denying newly-strengthened Democrats the sheen of bipartisanship on their signature priority, Republicans would plant the seed of their political revival. The meeting kicked off what would become a weekly Wednesday afternoon check-in, convened in the walnut-paneled Mansfield Room steps from the Senate floor, so McConnell could keep tabs on negotiations toward a healthcare overhaul. For the rest of the year, the savvy Kentuckian used every tool of coercion and compulsion in his arsenal, honed over decades of learning the upper chamber’s subtle byways, to preserve a united opposition. It worked: When the bill came up for a vote the day before Christmas in 2009, not a single Senate Republican voted for it.

The late-November meeting that started it all has been little noted by posterity. More often, students of the Tea Party’s rise point to a dinner at the Caucus Room, a Washington steakhouse, the night before Obama’s inauguration as a signal event in the movement’s origin story. There, an array of Republican leaders from both the House and Senate spent four hours with senior party strategists hatching a plan to try to block the incoming president at every turn, starting with the massive package of stimulus spending that Democrats were already crafting. McConnell wasn’t there that night; and he had a two-month jump on the proceedings. The stimulus bill, whatever its price tag, would come and go. He knew the real test would be the Democrats’ once-in-a-generation gambit to expand the social welfare state by remaking the healthcare system. Obama, of course, went on to secure his landmark achievement, signing into law the measure that would come to carry his name. But he lost the politics of the issue. Republicans stoked popular anger toward the “government takeover” of healthcare, pledging to shred it if voters returned them to power. Voters responded in kind by delivering the House back to the GOP in 2010 and the Senate in 2014.

There was a rot at the heart of the Republican strategy. McConnell likes to say that “winners make policy, losers go home.” It’s a bit of circular logic that justifies a win-at-any-cost approach to partisan warfare, while excusing the Republican unwillingness to craft a credible alternative to the law they spent the better part of the last administration promising to destroy. At every turn of the screw, as the party plodded back to power on Capitol Hill, Republican brass insisted they’d be releasing their replacement plan imminently. It never came, and Republican feints toward repealing the law likewise fell short. As their frustration with their own leadership mounted, the Republican base sent waves of increasingly hardline wrecking crews to represent them in Congress. That animus arguably found its most perfect form in the new president. But President Trump, who campaigned on a pledge to swap out Obamacare for “something terrific,” no more had a secret plan in a desk drawer than did the GOP’s Congressional mandarins.

Now, with complete control of Washington’s policymaking machinery, the party finally has to call its own bluff. Ahead of a make-or-break House vote today, the administration and its allies on the Hill are scrambling to rework their replacement measure so it can muster a bare majority in the chamber and keep the process moving. The Congressional Budget Office’s estimate that the bill would leave 24 million more people uninsured in a decade has been weighing heavily on the bulk of the party. Nevertheless, far-right conservatives are demanding a more frontal assault on the existing law, changes that will cost votes among moderate Republicans — and complicate the bill’s Senate prospects. So the seed that McConnell planted more than eight years ago is reaching full flower, bearing along with it a toxic fruit. Either Republicans fulfill their promise at long last and then face those millions whose benefits they’ve stripped, or the repeal campaign is revealed as a long con, inviting the wrath of those who bought it.

Publishing note: Friday’s edition will be the last of this newsletter. I’m leaving the magazine for a new assignment at the Washington Post. Starting Monday, if you aren’t already, you’ll receive the TIME Politics newsletter, which I highly recommend. To make sure it lands in your inbox, please add to your address book. And I hope you’ll keep up with me, too, as I switch gigs, which you can do by following me on Twitter.

Tory Newmyer

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