Trump fashioned himself as the master dealmaker. His senior aides described him as “an extremely good listener” and said his negotiating skills were the product of “total natural talent,” saying he could turn up the heat or the charm as needed.
But the negotiations over the bill’s substance took place mostly at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Trump had amicable meetings with members of all stripes but found himself caught in the middle of factional House GOP dramas that have been simmering for years. As one member of the House Freedom Caucus described it: “We’re competing with Ryan. We like Trump.”
As the odds for success fluttered, Trump increasingly came to relish the fight, seeing the sprint for passage as a test of whether he could translate abilities from the boardroom to the Oval Office.
Among the lawmakers he courted most intensely was Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus. Trump brought him to the Oval Office, called him regularly and directed White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon to call or text him daily. Last weekend, Meadows even journeyed to Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private Florida club, to huddle with Bannon and other aides about the bill.
Meadows said his mantra in negotiating with Trump had been, “If this was about personalities, we’d already be at ‘yes.’ He’s charming, and anyone who spends time with him knows that. But this is about policy, and we’re not going to make it about anything else.”
For Meadows, a sticking point was essential health-benefit requirements under the current law for insurance companies, such as maternity and newborn care, and substance-abuse treatment, which he wanted removed and replaced with narrower rules.
Meadows and other Freedom Caucus members met with Trump and Pence at the White House on Thursday, but they left without a deal, even after Trump had worked with them for weeks — leaving Trump’s advisers exasperated with the ornery bloc.
It was not only the Freedom Caucus creating problems for Trump. A group of more moderate Republicans, known as the Tuesday Group, stood opposed to the bill, despite the president’s pleadings.
One such member, Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), attended meetings at the White House and praised Trump’s style, saying the president clearly “knows Jersey.” But, he added, the bill would harm his constituents who rely on Medicaid and there was nothing Trump could say to persuade him otherwise.
“He’s got this wit about him that I enjoy,” Lance said, “but I’m a ‘no’ vote.”
While there’s no reason to think that Trump is good at presidenting (or Ryan as good at legislating), and I’m as happy to make jokes about them as anyone, I see no reason to believe that this would have been any different with Rubio or Cruz or Jeb! in the White House. Both Republican factions have their own interests, the marginal votes weren’t there, that dat’s dat. Both sides liked Trump, and in the districts on the right margin Trump is popular. It just doesn’t matter. At bottom, presidents can’t get legislators to vote for stuff they really don’t want to vote for.
Since I’ve been often been critical of heighten-the-contradictions and all-or-nothing tactics, let me be clear that I strongly endorse such tactics when used by the right. I hope they’ll endorse more onanistic vanity voting too!