One learns more from failure than success, or so the saying goes. But in the collapse of the Republican attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare, there were lessons aplenty for both winners and losers.
President Donald Trump. He says he learned a lot, and he should have. First: Politics is not business. Art-of-the-deal principles don’t work in Washington. You can’t deliver an ultimatum and threaten to walk away if it’s not accepted.
Second: Details matter. You can’t talk in broad strokes about better and cheaper and beautiful, then let others fill in the picture.
Third: Trump says he’s an instinctual person and that his instincts are always right. Whatever one thinks of that, his instinct that eventually Democrats will want to work with him on a legislative fix for Obamacare is sound. In fact, Trump ought to pursue that. Paging Chuck Schumer, who is not a natural leader of a resistance movement. He, too, likes making deals.
Fourth: Trump learned the conservative Freedom Caucus is not his ally. That was clear when he talked Friday about doing a bipartisan health care bill. And if that was just a warning shot for issues like tax reform, Trump learned something about governing and unlocking gridlock in Washington.
Fifth: Trump said he learned a lot about loyalty. He’s used the word before to separate friends and enemies. But using health care positions as a litmus test, and running staunch conservatives in primaries against bill opponents in 2018, could easily lead to Democrats winning those seats.
Paul Ryan. He learned that he has a partner without principles, other than winning, whatever Trump thinks that means. He learned that being a purist is one thing, being transactional is something else. Trump bargained with the Freedom Caucus independently of Ryan, forced a vote when Ryan didn’t want one, then claimed he was the one who canceled it.
Congressional Republicans. They learned that when you say you’re against something, you’d better know what it is you’re for. They never had to do that while Barack Obama was president, then found their factions have very different health care visions. It’s a lesson Democrats should take to heart while they’re in the minority. Other big issues loom, and reflexive opposition might feel good, please core supporters and be effective in the short term. But eventually, they’re going to have to say what they support, and they also have stark divisions within their ranks.
Congressional Democrats. They learned that sometimes you can win by letting the Republicans self-destruct. But they should resist the temptation to take away a different lesson: that “their” victory is a mandate to filibuster Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
Trump voters. They learned that Trump will abandon them, when he agreed to stop requiring that policies offer essential benefits like coverage for mental health and drug addiction issues, hospitalizations and emergency services. As he did that, Princeton University economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case released a study showing that less-educated middle-aged white Americans — Trump voters — are dying in disproportionate numbers from suicides, drug overdoses and alcohol-related diseases. Deaton and Case call those “deaths of despair.”
Town-hall activists. They learned the power of loud voices, especially in swing districts. They turned out in force to say they didn’t want to lose their coverage. House members like Staten Island’s Dan Donovan, where residents would have lost coverage and Barbara Comstock, whose northern Virginia district went for Hillary Clinton by 10 points, listened, defied Ryan, and announced their opposition. That feel-good lesson — that representative democracy works — will embolden these new activists.
Of course, all lessons matter only if they change behavior. And this is Washington. So the jury is out.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.