Opinion

Trump has no idea how politics works

The president attempts to take his own party hostage

It's tough to grapple with the apparent fact that the president of the United States is a dolt. Liberals used to joke about George W. Bush's constant malapropisms, accidents, ignorance of geography, and so on. And while Bush was still the second-worst president in American history, one still had to admit he at least had a moderate helping of cunning.

President Trump, while he can advertise the desserts at his country club while talking about the latest bombings he's ordered, manifestly does not have the slightest clue about the basic mechanics of politics. Case in point: his latest threat to withhold payments to insurers under part of ObamaCare, supposedly to force Democrats to "start calling me and negotiating." It's a truly bewildering misread of the state of politics.

What he's talking about are "CSR payments," a subsidy for insurers that helps them defray the cost of insuring low-income people on the exchanges. (I would guess the odds that someone only just now explained to him what these are is about 100 percent.) Republicans, as part of their anti-ObamaCare lawsuit frenzy in years past, ginned up a legal case against these payments, arguing that they were illegal because Congress didn't have to specifically appropriate the money every year.

It's in keeping with the basic Republican legal framework: "If Democrats do it, that means it's unconstitutional." But if they could have gotten their co-partisan hacks in the federal courts to agree, they could have refused to appropriate and thus dealt the law a sharp blow.

The lawsuit has rather faded from view lately, as Republicans now hold power in every branch of government, and the real motivation for conservative ObamaCare hatred — Obama himself — has left office. However, it is still winding its way through the federal courts. That was apparently what inspired Trump to make his threat.

There are two howling errors here.

First, Trump still doesn't seem to grasp that Republicans control both the House and the Senate. Under Obama, Republican hostage-taking tactics like shutting down the government or threatening national default had at least a logic to them (despite being violently unpatriotic and eventually backfiring), because Obama — who was, let me emphasize, from the other party — was president. By threatening not to raise the debt ceiling, the House GOP caucus put a gun to the head of the world economy in an attempt to get Obama to agree to do things he wouldn't have otherwise done.

The reason Trump's health-care reform flopped, however, is that House Republicans could not agree to pass it. It didn't even make it to the Senate, where Democratic votes might have conceivably been needed. The GOP has a large House majority — Democrats could not possibly stop them, should they decide to vote something through. All they did was pressure the more moderate wing of the GOP caucus to not delete their constituents' health insurance, which worked. The people who would be politically hurt by breaking ObamaCare are Republicans in swing districts.

In other words, Trump is effectively threatening to take his own party hostage. That doesn't actually work.

That ties into the second error: a misread of the basic directions of political preference. Broadly speaking, Democrats want more generous government programs; Republicans want the opposite. Threatening to undermine ObamaCare — making it work less well — to get them to pass TrumpCare is to threaten the opposite of what Democrats want, so as to get them to agree to do something that is also the opposite of what they want. That's not how negotiation works either!

What's more, it is beyond obvious that the best move for Democrats is to sit back and enjoy watching Republicans being blamed for everything bad that happens for once. As I have argued before, with full control of government Republicans now own health-care policy. They can either pass their own law and be held responsible for whatever that does, or they can fail and be held responsible for not doing anything.

I know this is Schoolhouse Rock-levels of analysis, but that is unfortunately where we are as a country. We're in for another couple years, at least, of an ignoramus of a president, lounging around and playing golf, constantly mangling not just trivial minutiae but the basic facts of which party wants what.

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