Knowing where Donald Trump stands on an issue is notoriously difficult. He’s been on multiple sides of most of the major issues of his lifetime. There are threads of consistency—such as on trade and race—that stretch back decades, and he is reliably opposed to anything Barack Obama supported. But on major domestic policy issues, Trump is often mercurial. Generally, the more complicated the issue, the more haphazard his views are on it. Consider his public utterances on a bipartisan health-care deal that was announced on Tuesday by two senators, Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee, and Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington.
Before Trump was against the deal, he bragged that he had engineered it. And there’s actually some evidence that he did. Last week, the White House announced that the federal government would no longer pay health insurers the subsidies, known as cost-sharing reduction payments, for low-income customers. The C.S.R.s, which were created by the Affordable Care Act, have been challenged in the courts, and at least one federal judge has ruled they were not properly authorized by Congress and are therefore unconstitutional. Trump pulled the plug on the payments before the issue was definitively decided by the courts. The Congressional Budget Office has predicted that ending C.S.R.s would increase premiums and reduce coverage options on the Obamacare insurance exchanges. Alarmed by the impact, almost every major player in the health-care industry signed a letter this week asking Congress to restore the subsidies. Trump’s actions, while reckless, undoubtedly re-energized talks that had been going on for months between Alexander and Murray to stabilize and improve the exchanges.
Trump called Alexander last week, and again over the weekend, pressing him to strike a deal. “I don’t want people to suffer,” Trump told Alexander, according to the Senator.
At a Cabinet meeting at the White House on Monday, Trump spoke enthusiastically about the emerging deal, for which he took credit. “Republicans are meeting with Democrats because of what I did with the C.S.R.s,” he said. “If I didn’t cut the C.S.R.s, they wouldn’t be meeting, they’d be having lunch and enjoying themselves, all right. They’re right now having emergency meetings to have a short-term fix of health care.”
The next day, Tuesday, Alexander and Murray announced their plan, which would authorize the subsidies for two years and allow states some additional flexibility in how they implement the Affordable Care Act. Trump seemed pleased. At a press conference with the Prime Minister of Greece, he gave his blessing. “It is a short-term solution so that we don’t have this very dangerous little period, including dangerous periods for insurance companies, by the way,” he said of the Alexander-Murray proposal. “For a period of one year, two years, we will have a very good solution.”
And then the blowback from the right began. Key conservatives in the House argued—accurately—that the deal would save Obamacare rather than repeal and replace it, and came out against it. The Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was noncommittal. By Tuesday evening, Trump retreated. Speaking at a dinner sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, he was no longer hailing the deal as his handiwork. “Congress must find a solution to the Obamacare mess instead of providing bailouts to insurance companies,” he said.
According to Alexander, Trump called him the next morning and continued to be “encouraging,” but publicly Trump seemed to trash the deal. “I am supportive of Lamar as a person & also of the process,” he tweeted, “but I can never support bailing out ins co’s who have made a fortune w/ O’Care.”
The Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, exasperated, said, “The President keeps zigging and zagging so it’s impossible to govern.” But both he and Alexander noted that Trump could zag one more time. “Our only hope is that maybe tomorrow he’ll be for this again,” Schumer said. Alexander noted that the deal, despite the lukewarm reception from Republicans, was not dead. “By the end of the year chances are very good this agreement or something like it is law,” he said.
There is some reason for Alexander’s optimism. It is generally a smart bet that this Congress will be unable to pass any major legislation before the end of the year. Trump’s tax-cut plan is running into the same issue as his Obamacare repeal effort: with no Democrats supporting it, just three Republican defections will kill it. But there is one piece of legislating that has to happen: the government has to be funded. And because many conservative Republicans will reflexively vote against the legislation to fund the government, Trump will need Democrats to avoid a government shutdown. For months, Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, the House Minority Leader, have been maneuvering for that climactic confrontation in late December when they will demand concessions in return for their votes. They have now pushed two quasi-deals with Trump as their price: legislation to allow so-called Dreamers to stay in the United States and the Obamacare fix that Alexander and Murray negotiated. Trump has done the same thing with both deals: he embraced them and then, when faced with a backlash from the right, backed away. He is not, to say the least, a reliable negotiating partner.
But as the Obamacare repeal bills died, and as the tax-cut effort stalls, the dynamic between Trump and the Democratic leaders deserves close attention. In trying to dismantle Obama’s legacy, Trump has thrown two issues to Congress to solve: the fate of the Dreamers and the C.S.R.s. Both of these issues were on shaky ground. DACA, the program that protected Dreamers, was an executive action by signed Obama that was as easy for Trump to dismantle with his pen as it was for Obama to enact it with his. The C.S.R.s faced a serious challenge in the courts. If the Democrats somehow end the year having scuttled Obamacare repeal, stopped the Trump tax cuts, but cemented DACA and C.S.R.s into law, it would be a breathtaking achievement for the left during a period of full Republican control of the government. So don’t pay too much attention to Trump’s zigging and zagging on immigration and Obamacare. The real deal will happen in December.