The Senate health care bill is dead again after two conservative Republican senators said last night they would not vote to advance the legislation because it does not repeal enough of former President Barack Obama’s signature health law. As GOP leaders scramble to find a new tactic that will allow them to strip health insurance from millions while slashing taxes for the wealthy, President Donald Trump’s media supporters have been left grasping for a message.
The original bill, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell assembled through a secretive process and tried to rush through with little public debate, would lead to 22 million more Americans being uninsured at the end of the decade, largely due to cuts to Medicaid; many of those who retain insurance under the bill would pay more for fewer benefits. The bill was amended after the Congressional Budget Office offered that verdict, but the GOP decided not to wait for a new score before moving forward. Democratic senators are universally opposed to the legislation, while the most moderate and conservative Republicans have also refused to sign on, either because it does too much or too little to move away from Obamacare’s improvements to the health care system.
Trump’s propagandists look to him to set the tone for how to respond to bad news. But the message out of the White House has always been incoherent on health care, largely because the president seems to have no real interest in the various, serious policy debates surrounding the future of health insurance for the American people -- he just wants a win. In May, the president held a Rose Garden event to celebrate the passage of the House bill, which he described as a “great plan.” Weeks later, he turned around and privately called that legislation “mean.”
That sort of policy incoherence gets in the way of formulating messaging around legislative setbacks. Last night, for instance, Trump tweeted that “Republicans should just REPEAL failing ObamaCare now & work on a new Healthcare Plan that will start from a clean slate. Dems will join in!” But that tactical messaging completely ignores the question of what a good health care plan would look like, and whether the Senate bill that just went down in flames met that criteria. Without clearly defined heroes and villains or a clear policy vision, his media allies have been left to their own devices. The noise machine is grinding to a halt.
Absent messaging from the top, here are a few ways the pro-Trump media are responding:
The GOP leadership failed Trump
Most of Trump’s propagandists are of the opinion that Trump cannot fail; he can only be failed. As such, they’ve quickly turned their fire on McConnell and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI).
“I know the president is frustrated with the situation. A lot has been promised to him and not much delivered,” Fox host Kimberly Guilfoyle said last night. “I think this is a failure on the part of the leadership, to be quite honest. Because they needed to get this to stick and to coalesce and get it done.”
“Second failure for Mitch McConnell,” Steve Doocy added on Fox & Friends this morning, pointing to the bill’s previous collapse last month.
Even Matt Drudge is getting in on the act:
If the Senate bill continues to struggle, and Trump doesn’t publicly support McConnell, we could see calls for his replacement in the near future.
“It was a lousy bill”
Trump’s lack of interest in policy leaves his supporters plenty of room to say that they didn’t like the bill, without creating any dissonance about the fact that the president supported the legislation.
Doocy went after the bill from the start this morning, saying, “Ultimately, what undid this bill is -- the one that they are not going to vote on now -- is it was a lousy bill. I mean, it still had big taxes. It still had a lot of regulations. It had that insurance company subsidy slush fund that Rand Paul was talking about. It was not what the American people” wanted. Notably, since Doocy also has little knowledge of or interest in policy, he can’t really say what a good replacement would look like either, simply saying Congress should “get rid of all that stuff and come up with something new.”
“Maybe it’s time to nuclear option things”
One of the problems Senate Republicans faced in trying to push through health care legislation is that because they knew no bill would attract enough Democratic support to overcome a filibuster, they were trying to pass the bill with a 50-vote threshold through the budget reconciliation process. But that process limits what can actually go into the bill, making full repeal of Obamacare extremely difficult.
In order to sidestep that process, the hosts of Fox & Friends are calling for Senate Republicans to deploy the “nuclear option” and eliminate the filibuster altogether, making all votes subject only to a majority vote. It’s unclear how this would help pass a health care bill since Republicans just demonstrated they don’t have 50 votes in the Senate, but this morning Doocy, co-host Brian Kilmeade, and former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer all seemed eager to push through that proposal.
A few hours later, Trump, who regularly watches Fox & Friends, chimed in, tweeting, “The Senate must go to a 51 vote majority instead of current 60 votes. Even parts of full Repeal need 60. 8 Dems control Senate. Crazy!”
Hey look over here!
For some, the best way to get through a crushing defeat for the president is to downplay that it happened.
Time to move on to tax reform
Another option is to give up altogether. That’s the current recommendation of Fox News host Eric Bolling, at least until the president makes clear that he’s sticking with health care.
“Let's just say this thing fails. They put it off to the side,” he said on this morning’s Fox & Friends. “They screwed up. They failed. You shore up the individual insurance markets. You put it off to the side. Then you take up something that I think every single American, whether you are Democrat, independent, or Republican, can wrap their brain around, tax reform.”
The good news for the pro-Trump media is that tax reform is a very simple issue with few stakeholders and broad agreement in Congress on a way forward. It also helps that the president has learned important lessons from the health care fight about overconfidence in the face of policy fights.