Entire journalism school courses can be constructed around the knotty question of how to cover Donald Trump’s tweets.
There is a case that these 140-character eruptions force reporters to chase irrelevancies such as Trump’s fact-free claim that he really won the popular vote “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” But you can also argue that anything like Twitter that provides an unfiltered window into the mind of a president deserves to be scrutinized as much as a staff-written speech read off a Teleprompter.
I am a strong believer in the value of taking Twitter tours of Trump’s psyche. Which is why I was intrigued by Trump’s recent Sunday torrent of did-you-miss-me tweets after his return from Europe.
What particularly stood out in policy terms was the president’s implicit acknowledgment that the GOP’s Obamacare strategy of “repeal and replace” had really become “retreat and regroup.”
As Trump put it in a provocative Sunday night tweet, “I suggest that we add more dollars to Healthcare and make it the best anywhere. ObamaCare is dead — the Republicans will do much better!”
The snide interpretation is that Trump had no idea what was in the House health care bill that he so enthusiastically celebrated in the Oval Office. (Spoiler alert: The Congressional Budget Office says that 23 million Americans would be left without health insurance coverage over the next 10 years.) And supposedly Trump failed to notice that his budget calls for more than $800 billion in future cuts to Medicaid.
But there is also a more benign theory about what motivated this tweet. A flailing Trump has become desperate for a legislative victory on health care. And belatedly, the president realizes that he needs moderate Democratic votes in Congress for any revision of Obamacare and is willing to put money on the table in hopes of getting it.
There are practical problems with this approach, especially because the Russians took the “reset button” with them when they were in the Oval Office. White House hopes for Democratic cooperation vanished somewhere between the angry Inaugural Address and the first Muslim ban executive order. These days, the Democratic base would probably rebel even if Trump called for single-payer health insurance under Medicare.
This tweet also illustrates Trump’s deeper problem on Capitol Hill — he is a president without a party.
There is scant evidence that Trump has strong beliefs about health care other than the memory of the cheers that he received at every campaign rally when he denounced Obamacare. And as a real estate negotiator who prized flexibility, Trump learned that if one set of bankers was unrelenting then you would try to cut a deal with a rival group.
Alas, as Trump is discovering, it doesn’t work like that in Congress.
Republicans — whether they hail from the business or Tea Party branches of the party — have no interest in rewriting the Obamacare replacement bill to make it more generous than the original legislation. For, in case you haven’t noticed, there is not a Bernie Sanders wing of the GOP.
This reality highlights the loneliness of a president who won the White House through a cult of personality. There are Trump Republicans who passionately support the president on immigration and trade. But when it comes to lavishing federal money on health care and infrastructure, Trump suddenly becomes reduced to a party of one.
It is hard to find supporters of the free-spending side of the Trump persona even in the White House, unless you cling to the fantasy that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump are closet liberals. Mike Pence and Reince Priebus are the embodiment of business Republicans and Steve Bannon appears far more interested in muscular America First nationalism than the details of domestic policy.
That is why cutting taxes represents the rally-around-the-flag issue that unites Trump with his adopted political party. Even though the Trump tax plan can fit on a single page and there is no legislation in Congress, the exuberant president tweeted Sunday night: “The massive TAX CUTS/REFORM that I have submitted is moving along in the process very well, actually ahead of schedule. Big benefits to all!”
Among the biggest beneficiaries of “massive TAX CUTS/TAX REFORM” would presumably be a secretive taxpayer named Trump and definitely an in-your-face president named Trump. But when it comes time to actually craft a bill, Trump may find himself at odds with Republicans who nostalgically still worship at the shrine of a balanced budget.
Nothing in Trump’s life history (especially his four bankruptcies) suggests that this is a man unduly worried about debt. Yes, the president’s slash-and-burn budget plays arithmetic games to achieve the myth of eventual balance, but that probably reflects hardline OMB Director Mick Mulvaney rather than Trump himself.
In theory, a president with Trump’s background and attitudes might have governed as a quirky centrist politician. Such a leader would have been generous in domestic policy, aggressive in rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure and bold in embracing true tax reform while still appealing to his base on immigration and trade.
But Trump lacked the attention span, the knowledge and the self-discipline to play that potentially transformative role in American politics. Instead, he remains increasingly isolated in the White House with only his Twitter feed for company.
Walter Shapiro is a columnist for CQ-Roll Call. Column courtesy of the Associated Press.