Mucking up an interaction with Congress is a rite of passage for every new president—usually on health care, and especially for those with limited experience in Washington.
The twin pitfalls for a new president are the same ones the great Tommy Lasorda described in his approach to baseball: “I believe managing is like holding a dove in your hand. If you hold it too tightly you kill it, but if you hold it too loosely, you lose it.” A president can try to push his vision aggressively on Congress, risking backlash from members—let’s call that the Bill Clinton approach. Alternatively, he can try to hang back and let Congress act, risking the chance that without presidential leadership, members will come up with something he doesn’t like, or even worse that they can’t pass. We’ll call that the Barack Obama approach.
Donald Trump now runs the risk of making both errors, one of each on his two major legislative priorities: Obamacare repeal and tax reform.
Start with the Clinton problem. In 1993, the then-president, fresh to Washington, mounted a push to overhaul the nation’s health system, placing First Lady Hillary Clinton in charge of it. Her approach initially won plaudits—she was smart and mastered a great deal of material quickly—but the effort famously failed. There are several reasons for that, but one was that the White House attempted to impose a plan on Congress, delivering a more-or-less complete health-care bill. That both rubbed members the wrong way and created openings for critics. As the veteran journalist Jerry Seib put it, “President Bill Clinton offered an (overly) detailed health plan in 1993, and his critics picked it apart, chart by chart and page by page.”
When Obama took office in 2009, he also made health overhaul a priority. But having watched Clinton’s failure 16 years earlier, he and his advisers, many of whom were Clinton White House veterans, opted for a far more hands-off approach. “The administration has been careful not to weigh in with too much authority or to make any public pronouncements on the negotiations,” Matt Bai wrote in June 2009.
Obama took lots of flak for that choice. “Among the many problems President Barack Obama confronts on the health-care front, one is fairly simple. He is defending a plan that doesn’t really exist,” Seib wrote that September. A week later, Obama himself admitted overcorrecting. “I, out of an effort to give Congress the ability to do this thing and not step on their toes, probably left too much ambiguity out there, which then allowed opponents of reform to come in and fill up the airwaves with a lot of nonsense,” he told Good Morning America. Months later, after Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts deprived Democrats of a Senate supermajority, Christina Bellantoni wrote that Obama had “all but disappeared from the discussions as congressional leaders attempt to figure out a way to finalize a health-care plan now that they have just 59 Senate seats.”
Obama got his law in the end, but it was a deeply flawed one. It was far enough left to create a conservative bogeyman, while failing to really achieve many progressive priorities; the jury-rigged structure was open to challenges in the courts, which, for example, reduced Medicaid expansion to an optional program in states. The law was deeply unpopular, right up until the moment Trump tried to repeal it.
For the attempt to repeal Obamacare, Trump adopted the Obama strategy. He basically took a very hands-off approach, while laying out a few basic principles he wished to see included. It was only late in the process that Trump intervened personally, inviting lawmakers to the White House for a last-minute persuasion session meant to showcase his prowess as a dealmaker. (It was a sign of just how hands-off he’d been that during that meeting, he felt the necessity to declare that he was 100 percent in support of the House health plan.) But it failed—Speaker Paul Ryan couldn’t get enough votes to pass the bill, and he was forced to pull it.
There were, of course, some significant differences in Obama’s and Trump’s approaches, the distant handling aside. For one, the principles that Trump suggested—such as keeping in place the popular provisions of Obamacare and guaranteeing equal or broader coverage—were essentially impossible for a Republican House to pass. For another, he tried to get it done in two months, with an understaffed, inexperienced White House. Obama, by contrast, had a huge team of veteran Hill figures working for him, waited 14 months into office for a bill to pass, and still nearly failed. (The failed Clinton plan took months of work, too.)
Trump is feeling understandably burned by his experience on Obamacare repeal. In a great behind-the-scenes piece Thursday, Politico reported:
Several administration officials said Trump has told them not to leave the congressional details to Ryan and others—and that he eventually grasped how damaging the health-care defeat could be to the rest of his agenda. …
Now, Trump is forging ahead alone on taxes, rolling out a dramatic package of tax cuts on Wednesday without input from Hill leaders. “We aren’t listening to anyone else on taxes,” said one senior administration official, referring to Ryan. “It’s our plan.”
In other words, Trump looks to be overcorrecting, veering from too hands-off to the opposite extreme, of Clintonian imposition.
But this could go even worse than the health-care debacle. First, tax reform is possibly even more complicated than health care. Republicans agreed broadly on the desire to repeal Obamacare, even as they diverged over what should replace it. Second, the White House may be even less prepared for this fight than it was for the health-care debate. One advantage of being hands-off is you don’t have to know what you’re doing. Not so for the dirigiste approach. The Trump administration has all of the ambition of the Clinton White House, but even less experience and, given the haste, far less time to get up to speed.
Moreover, calling it “our plan,” as the administration official did, is to overstate things. The blueprint that the White House released Wednesday is, as my colleague Derek Thompson observed, barely 100 words long. It is basically a version of the plan that Trump laid out during the campaign last year, but if he or anyone on his staff has significantly filled that plan out with the sorts of details that turn a talking point into legislation, no one has demonstrated that. When Trump announced last week that a plan was coming on Wednesday, he took his own staff by surprise. Meanwhile, the House seems far apart from the Trump plan. Kevin Brady, the chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, for example, continues to advocate for a border-adjustment tax that the White House says it does not support.
Of course, knowing what you’re doing and having those details ready is not enough to guarantee success—just as Hillary Clinton could tell him. Looking back on the collapse of the 1993 push, she later wrote, “Our most critical mistake was trying to do too much, too fast.” The most likely outcome for Trump is that he will reach a similar conclusion, opting for more limited tax cuts rather than a sweeping reform of the whole system. But it appears he will do so only after having fallen into both of the traps laid for inexperienced presidents.