"Well that didn't work out very well." That's what I imagine congressional Republicans are saying to themselves after the demise of their health-care plan.
The GOP didn't achieve its policy objective, of course — now Americans will be deprived of the opportunity to experience the glorious health-care future Republicans promised — and the whole thing was a humiliating mess. But it goes even farther. The president on whom they laid their hopes, the one obsessed with "winning," now detects the stench of failure lingering around his own party. He's going to run in the other direction, even if it hurts Republicans.
President Trump is not big on accountability, so when the GOP bill fizzled out, he was quick to let everyone know that he won't be responsible for what happens to Americans' health care. "I'm not going to own it," he told reporters. "I can tell you the Republicans are not going to own it. We'll let ObamaCare fail, and then the Democrats are going to come to us." Trump has a rather bizarre and ahistorical belief that despite being the president, he won't be held responsible for what happens to the nation's health-care system under his watch.
As The Washington Post's James Hohmann pointed out, he also has a habit of talking about the Republican Party as though he isn't a part of it. At times like this, that carries with it a sting; when he tweets, "The Republicans never discuss how good their health-care bill is," more than a few of them might be moved to respond, "Well then why the hell didn't you help?"
So at a moment when Republicans would want to rally together and come up with a strategy to minimize the political damage they'll suffer, their president is pushing them away.
And he's getting help. If you look at conservative media right now, you'll see that Trump is still portrayed as a hero, while the failure is cast as the fault of incompetent, perfidious members of Congress whose performance wasn't worthy of the giant in the Oval Office. "Now we find out the Republican caucus in the Senate is infected with essentially leftist members," said Rush Limbaugh on Tuesday. "Collins, Murkowski, Capito — these three female leftists in the Republican caucus are running the Senate, not Mitch McConnell." On Wednesday, he went on: "The fight is not Republican versus Democrat. The fight is Donald Trump and his cadre and you, the Trump base, versus the Washington establishment."
Meanwhile, conservative organizations and far-right donors are plotting to go after Republicans who hesitated in supporting what was by everyone's admission a spectacularly unpopular piece of legislation. So Trump didn't do what skilled presidents do when there's important legislation being written — in fact, his ill-timed and ill-informed outbursts made passing a bill much more difficult — and now they're being punished for not coming through for him.
It's a long time until the 2018 elections, but it isn't hard to see how that could set up a problematic dynamic for the GOP.
In any midterm, the most critical question is which side's base is more motivated to get to the polls. If Republicans are being told again and again that their congressional representatives are traitors to the One True Cause — i.e. the glory of Donald Trump — then they may not be so enthusiastic about turning out to vote. And it's the GOP members of Congress, not Trump, who will be on the ballot next year. In the House, they voted for this abomination of a bill (all but 20 of them did anyway) and got nothing out of it — they'll get criticized for supporting an awful piece of legislation, but will still seem ineffectual and weak since it didn't pass.
Even setting the next election aside, it looks like the health-care debacle is setting the GOP against itself. The White House and Congress are blaming each other, eroding the trust they'll need to take on the next legislative challenge, and the one after that.
It won't get any easier — in fact, we may see the same dynamic playing out again, with a disconnected president who doesn't understand the issue and is just asking for a "win," while congressional Republicans wait in vain for him to help them resolve their differences, all while dreading the next time he shoots off his mouth (or his thumbs), making promises they can't keep. That could happen on the budget, on tax reform, and on any other major initiative they undertake.
Trump has always had an instinct for self-preservation, even when it means tossing aside people who had been loyal to him or blaming others for his own mistakes and misdeeds. But if he makes it harder for Republicans to hold the House in 2018, no one will be hurt more than him. If he thinks his presidency isn't going well right now, just wait until there's a Democratic House and he can't move any legislation at all, while they're issuing subpoenas every time he sneezes. That'll make these look like the good times.