Why the Trump White House drama really matters
Posted August 2
More than six months after taking office, President Donald Trump, his top aides and at least one Cabinet secretary exist in a rolling tumult. The White House welcomed a second chief of staff over the weekend and is waiting on a third communications director. The first press secretary resigned, but remains on the job in a reduced (or is it expanded?) role, while his successor launched her tenure by answering questions off a child's letter to the President.
The idea that Trump would, or will, ever preside over a functioning strategic messaging operation is a corollary of the long sought after "presidential pivot." For establishment politicians, consultants and pundits, this desire to see Trump conform, even cosmetically, to past norms is their white whale -- as longed-for as it is painfully elusive.
Trump, of course, has no desire to be tangled up in those nets. From the time he became a tabloid star in New York City, well before most of America was introduced to his current persona, Trump acted as his own "communications director." And sometimes his own press secretary. In that particular fishbowl, within those norms, it worked. Trump was selling himself, the gossip columnists their papers, and public could enjoy or ignore the results at their leisure. Success for Trump was the front page. That secured, it was on to the next.
But success -- defined here and now as advocating for and eventually enacting his political agenda -- in his new job requires a different set of muscles. It also demands the trust, loyalty and competence of subordinates. Not because they are good people (or that lacking any or all of the above suggests they are not), but for the simple purpose of maximizing the President's power -- an awesome tool, for better or worse, when exerted in conditionally optimal settings.
The story of the GOP's failure to repeal (and/or replace) Obamacare this spring and summer will spawn, if not books, then chapters in larger volumes about a very weird time in American political life.
When those histories are written, the court drama inside the West Wing will not exist in a separate sphere from the collisions on Capitol Hill. Neither is a "distraction" -- as so many armchair critics have declared -- from the other. They are very much of a piece.
Consider here the Democratic Party. No one's idea of a smoothly functioning political operation, they united disparate elements of the broader liberal/left to crash the barricades in defense of a law, Obamacare, that many once, and others still, considered a lamentable half-measure. They did it with coalition-building and strategic messaging. Dozens of lawmakers and liberal groups carried out a sustained -- and continuing -- pressure campaign to preserve Obamacare, while simultaneously making the case that its fundamental goals required further expansion.
The White House, by contrast, never presented to the public or Washington a compellingly coherent argument for why its plan would improve health care in the US, or the lives of those who might be effected by the new legislation. "Improve" is, of course, a subjective term. And what makes one person's life better might, if not in commensurate terms, make another's less so.
But that's the challenge of politics. Some congressional Republicans sought to make the sale, promising better "access" to coverage. House Speaker Paul Ryan rolled up his sleeves and walked reporters through a PowerPoint presentation. There was talk of buckets (three of them) to illustrate some members' desired process. It didn't quite sing, but they at least tried to play.
The message from the White House never matured beyond the tribal appeal Trump -- who has in the past embraced universal health care and even after becoming president openly desired "insurance for everybody" -- made on the campaign trail. And any momentum created by that alone was repeatedly blunted by the West Wing soap opera.
Over the 10 days that followed Lee and Moran's twin tweets, as pressure mounted again on Republicans to return to the table, Trump's cajoling, on social media and in person, registered either as strident -- certainly not persuasive -- or, well, not at all. The President also spent long stretches during that time seeking to goad his attorney general into resigning, complaining about the "fake news" and, in a confounding turn just 24 hours before "skinny repeal" came up for its ill-fated vote, tweeting an (unofficial) announcement that "the United States Government will not accept or allow... Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military."
None of it -- not the attacks on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the jarring message to transgender members of the armed forces, nor the capricious medium through which they arrived -- seemed intended as a distraction from the health care fight. They were sound, fury, and, in a roundabout way, deeply significant -- though not to the end Republicans might have hoped.