March 18, 2017
Steve Bannon, Ryancare and the Fate of Trump’s Agenda
by Ryan Lizza
the White House, Steve Bannon’s office, on the first floor of the West Wing, is called the war room. Bannon, the Administration’s chief strategist, has cleared out much of the furniture, and on one wall has hung an enormous whiteboard on which he has scrawled every promise that Donald Trump made during the campaign. Bannon and the war room are the heart of the effort to turn Trump’s populist campaign into a policy agenda that can pass Congress or be implemented through executive actions.
Bannon is trying to infuse Trumpism with a coherent nationalist “workers’ party” agenda. Trump’s health-care bill was written by the House Speaker, Paul Ryan, who is a more traditional conservative, and, as the Congressional Budget Office and other nonpartisan analysts have noted, older, rural, low-income white voters—the Trump base—would fare worse under the new legislation than under Obamacare. This makes the American Health Care Act a poor showpiece, to say the least, for Trump’s alleged transformation of the Republican Party into a vehicle for white-working-class assistance.
Ryancare–Doomed to Failure
Nonetheless, Bannon knows that the Ryan bill’s failure would be catastrophic for the rest of Trump’s agenda, because it would break a core campaign promise and sap Trump’s already limited political capital. So, on Saturday night, Bannon secretly hosted Mark Meadows, the leader of the Freedom Caucus, for several of hours of negotiations in the war room. (At least one of Meadows’s own top staffers didn’t know he was there.) The Freedom Caucus, which is made up of some forty of the most conservative members of Congress, opposes the Ryan bill on the grounds that it’s too similar to Obamacare. The resistance from Meadows and his allies threatens to hobble the entire effort—Ryan cannot lose more than twenty-two House Republicans and still pass the bill
The details of the deal that may emerge between Meadows and the White House are still murky, and might not be enough to overcome all the obstacles in the House. But a top White House official insisted that the meeting was the moment that “the real deal started getting done.” A G.O.P. aide familiar with the negotiations said to me, about the meeting, “there’s a bigger play in the works here.”
It’s prudent to remain skeptical. Any concessions to Meadows—who laid out his demands for a less generous bill yesterday in a Wall Street Journal op-ed co-authored with Senator Ted Cruz—might scare off moderates who want more assistance for low-income Americans through Medicaid or the individual market. But perhaps Bannon and Ryan can overcome the bill’s challenges. From a political standpoint, the White House is correct in assuming that the downfall of the Ryan health-care bill could have a cascading effect on the rest of Trump’s agenda.
Consider for a moment how Trump’s agenda is faring compared to the last President’s. By this point in his Presidency, Barack Obama had passed an eight-hundred-and-thirty-one-billion-dollar stimulus bill, a sweeping piece of legislation that alone would have made his first term memorable. By early April his first federal budget had passed both chambers of Congress, laying the groundwork for his overhauls of health care and government spending on education. Obama signed these large-scale policy changes into law the following year, along with the rewrite of Wall Street regulations known as Dodd-Frank. Of all the major pieces of legislation that Obama pushed during his first two years, only his climate-change plan, which passed the House and died in the Senate, failed. In all, it was the most significant period of legislating since Lyndon Johnson’s first few years in office.
Obama had several major advantages over Trump: a high approval rating, a large majority in Congress that was relatively united (including, for a stretch in late 2009, a filibuster-proof Senate), and an economic crisis that created a sense of urgency. Obama, like previous Presidents, understood that his best chance for getting big things accomplished was at the start of his first term.
As Trump hit fifty days in office this week, his Presidency was teetering on failure. Health-care reform is hobbled by divisions between conservatives who want to cut Medicaid deeper and faster and moderates who want to preserve the Obama-era expansion. Yesterday Trump released a budget with eye-popping cuts to discretionary spending that many Republicans have described as dead on arrival. Even with the proposed increase in Pentagon spending, many defense hawks are opposed to the draconian cuts at the State Department.
After 50 days
More moderate Republicans, especially the two dozen who are in districts carried by Hillary Clinton in the last election, are balking at the annihilation of popular programs, such as federal assistance for Meals on Wheels and spending on clean-air and water programs. Unlike Obama’s first budget, Trump’s will be rewritten in Congress, as numerous Republicans made clear yesterday. Meanwhile, Trump’s second attempt at an executive order banning travel from several Muslim-majority countries is again being successfully challenged in the courts, eating up more time and resources in an overwhelmed White House. The Russia investigation, which will begin on Monday with potentially damaging testimony from the F.B.I. director, James Comey, is only beginning.
But Trump’s first test is his ability to fashion a complex deal on health care—a task that would be difficult for even the most skilled Washington negotiator. In the Bannon war room, there are only a few items with check marks next to them on the whiteboard. If health care dies, there won’t be many more.
*Ryan Lizza is the Washington correspondent for The New Yorker, and also an on-air contributor for CNN