Donald Trump’s attack on Obamacare the surest way to election defeat

US Politics: Gravest threat to president is his gradual turn away from economic populism

Freed from the partisan tempers of our time, the Americans of tomorrow will look back at the Robert Mueller inquiry as a national feat.

An independent lawyer, they will learn, probed nothing less momentous than Russian subversion of US politics and a sitting president's complicity in it. Despite menaces from Congress and the White House, he was allowed to complete his work and achieve serious convictions along the way. America was better-guarded against a revisionist power's external activities as a result.

Other western democracies took a more than academic interest in the report, too. Even its main finding – that Donald Trump did not provably collude with Moscow in his own election – was, and this should not need saying, good news.

Obamacare is not yet entrenched as an immovable feature of American life, but it is getting there. It has found majority support in surveys for the past two years

Back here in 2019, however, all we have is the politics. Democrats vent their disappointment at Mueller. Republicans crow at his failure to fell their man. Note that they tacitly agree on one point: his report was going to be politically decisive, perhaps even the single biggest determinant of the next presidential election result.


A more damning set of findings (and these may yet emerge) would have brought about, if not impeachment and removal, then Trump’s electoral defeat in 2020. The corollary is that, as it is, his chances of a second term have gone up.

This always overrated the electoral significance of Trump’s “character” and underrated the electoral significance of his actual policies. The first is of unending interest to those of us who follow politics. The second is of material relevance to most voters.

Economic populism

The gravest threat to Trump’s re-election was never the ethical or even criminal allegations about him. It is his gradual turn away from the economic populism that won him his job. Above all, it is his reversion to the Republican mean on healthcare.

The president is volunteering for another round of a bout his party has already lost

Pay less notice to the Mueller report than to Trump’s immediate response to it. Flush with political capital, the president said he would support an existing lawsuit against the constitutionality of Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. He wants to overturn not just parts of it – the White House’s prior line – but the lot. He also wants to replace it with something yet-unspecified in his second term, which guarantees that healthcare will be central to the next election. In short, the president is volunteering for another round of a bout his party has already lost.

Obamacare is not yet entrenched as an immovable feature of American life, but it is getting there. It has found majority support in surveys for the past two years. A 2017 move against it by a Republican Congress under a Republican president came to nought. Democrats won the subsequent mid-term elections with a campaign that spoke of little else.

It is telling that even now the most potent efforts against the ACA are judicial, not political. And of the popular disaffection with it, some is on the left, where the grievance is that it does not go far enough.

Even some conservatives wonder about the wisdom of rejoining this fight. Next to this act of presidential self-harm, Mueller’s report, even if it turns out to be tougher on Trump than we currently know, has much less power to damage him at the polls.

Voters, remember, had a fair idea of Trump’s character when they elected him in 2016. They decided that it mattered less than other considerations. For some, it even contributed to his outlaw glamour.

Small-government Republican

What voters did not know in 2016 was that he would preside as another small-government Republican. He indicated quite the opposite. Even his campaign hostility to Obamacare emphasised “replace” as much as “repeal”. Since then: a tax cut, an infrastructure spree that never was and a negative obsession with the ACA.

Trump has one excuse. Economic populism is so under-developed on the American right that there is hardly anyone of that cast of mind to staff his government. Into the void stride the likes of Mick Mulvaney, his acting chief of staff, and the kind of supply-sider who might have served a generic Republican just as well. In the US, populism has a leader and a mass following, but not the cadres in between who could give it administrative clout.

The excuse will sound even weaker by 2020. Trump was elected on a promise to blend the cultural right with the economic left. If he only honours the first, his voters are likely to mind rather more than they ever have about his personal conduct.

Post-Mueller, a raid on Obamacare was the president’s idea of a victory lap. It is the surest way to his defeat. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019