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Steve and Cokie Roberts: Why health care failed

Steve and Cokie Roberts • Updated Jul 25, 2017 at 4:00 PM

There are many reasons why the Republican health care bill collapsed in the Senate, but two numbers help explain the outcome: 62 and 36.

Sixty-two percent is the favorable rating Ronald Reagan enjoyed six months into his first term in the summer of 1981. That wave of popularity swamped Democratic opposition and led to the passage of his signature tax-cutting proposal, even though Democrats enjoyed a 51-vote margin in the House.

On July 29 of that year, House Speaker Tip O’Neill told reporters that Reagan’s televised speech to the nation a few nights before had touched off “a telephone blitz like this nation has never seen.” That speech, combined with a national advertising campaign, had what the speaker called “a devastating effect” and helped convince 48 House Democrats to back the president.

By contrast, Donald Trump’s favorable score after six months has sunk to 36 percent in the latest ABC/Washington Post poll. The president campaigned only sporadically for the health care bill, and if he’d even tried something like Reagan’s TV speech, it would have fallen flat.

No Democrats supported the measure, and a critical number of Republicans opposed it as well. They felt free to defy the president because he is personally unpopular and so is his legislation. Unlike the Democrats who lined up with Reagan 36 years ago, Trump’s opponents don’t respect him and don’t fear him.

During those early months of 1981, when we were both covering Congress, Speaker O’Neill was talking one day about Reagan’s enduring political influence. “The honeymoon is still on,” he said. Trump never had a honeymoon, and is rapidly squandering what is usually a highly productive period in any presidency.

Compare their main legislative proposals. Reagan’s tax cuts slashed marginal rates by 23 percent, always an attractive idea to politicians. They eventually backfired, fueling the deficit and driving up interest rates, but at the time, they commanded broad bipartisan support.

The opposite is true for Trump’s health care bill. By about 2 to 1, Americans preferred Obamacare to the GOP alternative, reports the ABC/Post poll. And by a margin of 63 to 27, the public says it is more important to sustain health coverage for low-income Americans than to cut taxes.

That deeply critical view was reinforced by Republicans like Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. Collins said on CNN that the Trumpcare bill “imposes fundamental, sweeping changes in the Medicaid program, and those include very deep cuts that would affect some of the most vulnerable people in our society, including disabled children and poor seniors.” Republican governors like Brian Sandoval of Nevada joined in calling Obamacare “a winner for our state” and opposing attempts to cut it back.

Trump’s ability to push through such a mean-spirited measure was severely aggravated by his personal limitations. While his favorable rating is dismal, he ranks even lower on many questions of character and judgment.

Only 24 percent say his behavior in office is “fitting and proper,” while 7 in 10 describe him as “un-presidential.” Thirty percent see him as a “positive role model” for children while 68 percent say he is not. Twenty-nine percent say the more they hear from Trump, the more they like him; 57 percent say exposure to Trump has diminished their opinion of him.

The warning signs were clearly present during the election. Sixty-three percent of all voters said Trump lacked the temperament to be president, and yet 19 percent of those doubters voted for him anyway. Of the 61 percent who said he was not qualified to be president, 17 percent still supported him.

His hard-core base is still there – heavily weighted toward older white men without college degrees living in rural areas. But that’s about one-third of the country. For many others, the anxieties they expressed last November have been amplified by his performance, not alleviated. His base is shrinking, not expanding. And that’s not a good way to govern.

After Congress passed Reagan’s tax cut package, he talked to Democratic leaders. One of them, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, told him, “Well, Mr. President, you’re tough. You beat us ... It means you’re working at your job.”

Few members of Congress today view Trump as tough. Few fear that he can beat them. Few think he is working at his job, or even understands it. That’s a crucial reason why his health care bill failed -- and why the rest of his legislative program is in jeopardy.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.

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