The Obamacare train wreck was a failure for President Trump and a disaster for House Republicans. That is, it was worse for Republicans, because they had been at it for so long, but it was plenty bad for Trump. When Speaker Paul Ryan pulled the GOP repeal-and-replace bill Friday afternoon, he said, "We will need time to reflect on how we got to this moment." For that reflection, here, in no particular order, are 14 lessons from the Obamacare debacle:
1) Don't over-promise. Absent a national emergency, Congress cannot do big things fast. Don't promise a history-making legislative achievement in a matter of weeks. It won't happen.
2) Jobs, jobs, jobs. The economy remains the public's number-one concern. Yes, unemployment is far down from its peak in 2009, but many Americans are making less than they did years ago, and economic anxieties remain high. Trump won the presidency on a pledge to create more and better-paying jobs. Taking up Obamacare as the first legislative project of his presidency was not consistent with that pledge.
3) Find more votes. Unless there is exceptional unity on an issue, the GOP doesn't have enough votes to ignore Democrats and pass big legislation entirely on its own. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid (barely) passed Obamacare with 253 Democrats in the House and 60 in the Senate. Paul Ryan has 237 Republicans and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has 52. The GOP has virtually no room for error.
4) Start with giveaways, then move to harder stuff. The GOP Obamacare proposal was a bill that would have cut the federal deficit in part by reducing the number of Americans with health coverage. That's not exactly a recipe for popularity. Had Trump and the House GOP tackled, say, an infrastructure bill first, the story from Capitol Hill would have been a president and Congress giving things to the American people — surely a more popular legislative start to an already controversial presidency.
5) 'The Art of the Deal' doesn't work with ideologically-driven politicians. The pundits mentioned Trump's most famous book thousands of times during the Obamacare negotiations. But in dealing with the doctrinaire conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus, Trump was facing differently-motivated partners than in the deal-making recounted in his 1987 book. If the president wants to succeed in Washington, he'll have to learn how to deal with people who aren't in it just for the money.
6) Nancy Pelosi was right. The former Speaker and current House Minority Leader said Trump made a "rookie's error" in bringing the Obamacare measure to a finale too quickly. Before that, Washington insiders snickered when the president said in late February that "Nobody knew healthcare could be so complicated." Of course, everybody knew it was complicated. After all, in 2009-2010 it took Democrats more than a year to pass Obamacare, and they had a huge majority in the House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Trump, the newcomer to Washington, thought it could be done quickly with less firepower on Capitol Hill.
7) Trump and the House Republicans have different priorities and agendas. The reason Trump won Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio is that voters there did not view him as a doctrinaire Republican. So the first legislative effort Trump made was entirely dependent on doctrinaire House Republicans, who for seven years haven't been able to agree among themselves on replacing Obamacare. In doing so, Trump aligned himself with the most unpopular parts of the Republican brand.
8) John Boehner was right about the House Freedom Caucus. In an appearance last month, the former Speaker laughed at the notion that Republicans could agree on an Obamacare replacement. The relatively small group of the most conservative Republicans who gave Boehner fits in the Obamacare-related partial government shutdown in 2013 has been at it again in this effort. This time, they beat Ryan.
9) Keep it simple. Ryan and the GOP leadership came up with a Rube Goldberg scenario for passing Obamacare repeal-and-replace. There was a three-step plan, concessions to Senate reconciliation, and the insistence that Obamacare had to come in sequence before tax reform, the budget, infrastructure or anything else. It all got way too complicated to benefit from Trump's talents as a simplifier and a salesman.
10) Ryan is on probation. For years, House Republicans were able to pass bills like repealing Obamacare with the assurance that they didn't really mean anything; a Democratic president would veto them. Now, with a Republican president, GOP lawmakers are, in the words of Sen. Bob Corker, "shooting with real bullets." On Friday, Ryan failed his first real-bullets test as leader of a Congressional majority. "We were a 10-year opposition party where being against things was the easy thing to do," the Speaker said.
11) On big-ticket items, the president leads Congress, not the other way around.
12) The arcs of Obamacare failure and GOP outrage are out of sync. Republican outrage over Obamacare soared after Democrats rammed it down their throats in 2009-2010. Now, while there is still intense opposition to the healthcare law inside the GOP, it has not stayed at that 2009-2010 level. In retrospect, Republicans were maddest at Obamacare before it actually went into effect; it did not take hold until years after its passage and is only now showing real signs of potential collapse. So Republican zeal to get rid of Obamacare had diminished by the time Obamacare became a major problem and a danger for catastrophic failure — and by the time Republicans had control of both Capitol Hill and the White House to make repeal an actual possibility.
13) CBO estimates matter. The GOP bill suffered a terrible blow when the Congressional Budget Office estimated the plan would cause 24 million fewer people to have coverage by a decade from now. Ryan tried to make a virtue of that — many people would be exercising the freedom not to buy an insurance policy, he explained — but the net effect of the CBO assessment was devastating.
14) It's still early. The Obamacare screwup is a major failure. But it's an early failure. It won't kill the Trump presidency — provided Trump racks up some big accomplishments in his first year. Trump has plenty of time to recover. But if he doesn't do well, then the Obamacare mess will be seen as a harbinger of failures to come.