One can argue how much President Trump is or is not responsible for the Obamacare meltdown on Capitol Hill. But failure remains a real possibility, perhaps the most likely possibility, for the Republican Party's signature policy promise.
Maybe an effort to reform the tax code will go better. Maybe it won't.
The reality is, Trump could finish the year, and Hill Republicans face 2018, with no grand legislative accomplishments. Which means it might be time for Trump to reconsider what he is doing.
"Basically, if you don't like the last six months, you ought to think about changing," Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker who has the ear of the White House, said in a conversation last week.
But change how? A two-part solution could be on the horizon.
The first part: Instead of hoping for the big legislative win, given the divisions among Republicans on Capitol Hill, Trump might be wise to lower his aim, to play what is often derisively referred to as "small ball."
The most famous practitioner of small ball was Bill Clinton, who after losing the House and Senate in 1994 promoted a series of small initiatives — school uniforms was the most famous — to show him governing as his 1996 re-election campaign approached. Clinton made it famous, but his successors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, were both reduced to the same sort of thing in the later parts of their terms.
Now, given circumstances that include a deeply divided Republican team on Capitol Hill, Trump might have to adopt small ball sooner than his predecessors. "We're in a cycle where the team thinks they have a bunch of home run hitters, but they get up and strike out," Gingrich said. "But you also have a lot of people who bunt and hit singles and doubles — which is another way of winning."
Why keep straining for the home run — which Republicans might simply not be capable of hitting right now — when they could attempt smaller initiatives and accomplish more? "Once they get through swinging for the fences, there are three or four parts of Obamacare they could fix," Gingrich said of the Hill leadership. "They could pass a simple tax cut bill. They could also pass an infrastructure bill."
Congress has already gotten some solid hits, like the bill reforming Veterans Administration personnel practices and 15 measures undoing harmful Obama-era regulations. Now, Gingrich has urged both the president and House Speaker Paul Ryan to identify and pursue achievable goals.
Of course, even if they do, it's always possible that the House and Senate GOP conferences, divided and facing intractable Democratic opposition, still won't be able to accomplish much. Which leads to part two of the Trump solution: forget about trying to prod dysfunctional Hill Republicans into action and concentrate on exercising the executive authority of the presidency.
Trump's 100-day report card relied heavily on executive action. He pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He authorized building the Keystone and other pipelines. He took action to speed the removal of criminal illegal immigrants.
Trump had particular success with an executive order directing that for every new federal regulation that is imposed, two must be removed. Instead of that two-for-one ratio, administration officials recently reported, 16 old regulations have been killed for each new one imposed.
And then there is the judiciary. Trump of course received the unanimous praise of conservatives for his nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. But he is going far beyond that. "[Trump] also selected 27 lower-court judges as of mid-July," former Obama and Clinton aide Ronald Klain wrote recently. "Twenty-seven! That's three times Obama's total and more than double the totals of Reagan, Bush 41 and Clinton — combined."
There is much more Trump could do through executive action. If Congress accomplishes nothing, Trump could still have plenty of achievements to showcase. And if Congress makes progress on a smaller agenda, to go along with Trump's executive actions, both lawmakers and the president would have a record of getting things done.
Of course, previous presidents turned to small ball and executive action after losing control of Congress or losing energy as their terms wore on. Trump is new, with a Republican House and Senate, and should be on his way to doing big things. But for whatever reason — blame both Trump and the Hill — that is not happening. So like Gingrich said, when things aren't working, it's not a crazy idea to think about changing.
Trump and Congress should not be haunted by the records of previous presidents. Obama's legislative legacy was largely the result of a situation that is extremely unusual in recent American politics: a huge House majority combined with a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Due to a complex set of circumstances, Democrats had a 60-vote majority for just 134 days in 2009 and 2010, but they used it to push through Obamacare on a party-line basis. When voters quickly took that supermajority away — by giving Ted Kennedy's Senate seat to a Republican, no less — Democrats had to resort to simple-majority reconciliation to finish the job of passing Obamacare.
Even if Trump were the greatest president in history and Mitch McConnell the greatest legislator, nothing like that will happen in today's atmosphere with a 52-seat GOP Senate majority. And remember that after Obama lost the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014 he became … an executive authority president.
While the two previous presidents, Bush and Clinton, of course have legislative legacies, neither legacy dominates their place in history. Bush, for better or worse, will be remembered for the War on Terror and the Iraq War, and Clinton — whose major legislative legacy, welfare reform, was something he didn't want to do — will be remembered for presiding over a period of relative peace and prosperity.
The fact is, Trump doesn't really need a big legislative legacy item to become a more popular president than he is now, perhaps even a popular enough president to be re-elected. If Trump could persuade Congress to pass smaller measures that help make Americans' lives better, and if he could augment that with aggressive executive action — that could be legacy enough.