The Memo: GOP forms circular firing squad

Republicans and conservatives are forming a circular firing squad after the ignominious collapse of the party’s healthcare effort — and everyone is opening up with both barrels.

The White House is blaming Democrats in public and Congressional Republicans in private. 

From Capitol Hill, fingers are being pointed toward the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, at President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says his faith is 'bedrock foundation of my life' after Trump claim Coronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Ohio governor tests negative in second coronavirus test MORE’s purportedly inconsistent leadership.


The post-mortems offer a multitude of more specific reasons why the attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as ObamaCare, expired.

It was the fault of Trump for weighing in against a strategy to repeal first and replace later. Or for moving on healthcare before tax reform. Or for causing endless distractions with his tweets.

It was the fault of House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanBudowsky: Why I back Kennedy, praise Markey Democratic super PAC quotes Reagan in anti-Trump ad set to air on Fox News: 'Are you better off?' Trump lashes out at Reagan Foundation after fundraising request MORE (R-Wis.) for losing momentum right out of the gate, when the first attempt to pass legislation failed. Or for not being solicitous enough of conservative concerns.

It was the fault of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCoronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks Overnight Health Care: Ohio governor tests positive for COVID-19 ahead of Trump's visit | US shows signs of coronavirus peak, but difficult days lie ahead | Trump: COVID-19 vaccine may be ready 'right around' Election Day MORE (R-Ky.) for drawing up his bill largely in secret. Or for failing to corral his members when the crunch came.

The one thing for sure is that the collective blame-game has consumed the capital since GOP Sens. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeOvernight Defense: Air Force general officially becomes first African American service chief | Senators introduce bill to block Trump armed drone sale measure | State Department's special envoy for Iran is departing the Trump administration Senators introduce bill to block Trump armed drone sale measure Trump signs major conservation bill into law MORE (Utah) and Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranTrump tests GOP loyalty with election tweet and stimulus strategy VOA visa decision could hobble Venezuela coverage As ADA anniversary nears, lawmakers express concern about changes to captioned telephone service MORE (Kan.) dealt the effort a final death-blow by joining colleagues Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsThe Hill's Campaign Report: Trump's visit to battleground Ohio overshadowed by coronavirus New polls show tight races for Graham, McConnell McConnell goes hands-off on coronavirus relief bill MORE (Maine) and Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulTrump-backed Hagerty wins Tennessee GOP Senate primary Senators introduce bill to block Trump armed drone sale measure The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump's visit to battleground Ohio overshadowed by coronavirus MORE (Ky.) in opposition to McConnell’s bill on Monday evening. 

“This was McConnell’s deal,” was the pithy verdict from one senior White House official, when asked by The Hill where the effort went off course.

Those more sympathetic to the congressional leadership counter by arguing that the realities of healthcare are fiendishly difficult.

The margins for error were always going to be tight, given blanket Democratic opposition and the fact that McConnell could not afford to lose more than two of the 52 GOP senators. The situation was further complicated in recent days by the absence of Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCNN's Ana Navarro to host Biden roundtable on making 'Trump a one-term president' Mark Kelly clinches Democratic Senate nod in Arizona Prominent conservatives question Jerry Falwell Jr. vacation photo MORE (R-Ariz.), who is recovering from surgery.

In the eyes of some Republicans, the difficult landscape makes Trump’s failure to provide clear leadership all the more unforgivable.

The president left the crafting of legislation up to Congress. He made few attempts to sell the plan to the broader public, critics say. And he caused consternation in GOP ranks when he at one point described as "mean" the House-passed legislation that he had previously praised.

“The contrast between President Obama’s yearlong push [for the ACA] and President Trump’s approach to repeal-and-replace is stark,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist who in the past worked with the president’s 2016 primary rival, Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioPessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire McConnell: Wearing a mask is 'single most significant thing' to fight pandemic McConnell goes hands-off on coronavirus relief bill MORE (R-Fla.).

“He never gave a single speech about healthcare reform, let alone prime-time press conferences or traveling the country holding big rallies,” Conant said. “Healthcare reform failed because of opposition from conservatives, and yet the leader of the conservative movement — the president — did very little to rally his base.”

But Trump is showing no signs of moving away from the basic stance that dismayed Conant and others — though he has arranged a campaign-style rally for Youngstown, Ohio, next Tuesday, presumably to boost his own morale and that of his supporters.

Speaking to reporters in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Tuesday, the president acknowledged that he was “disappointed.” He lamented that GOP lawmakers had spoken about repealing the Affordable Care Act since the law’s inception seven years ago. But when they had the chance to do something about it, he said, “they don’t take advantage of it.”

“I’m sitting in the Oval Office right next door, pen in hand, waiting to sign something,” Trump added. 

Republicans sympathetic to the president say he can hardly be held to blame when legislators fail to legislate.

“These guys had exactly what they wanted and needed to repeal and replace,” said GOP strategist Hogan Gidley, who has worked on past presidential campaigns by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. “Look, they make the laws at the end of the day.”

Some senators have defended Trump’s tactics during the ultimately futile push. 

Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoLatest Trump proposal on endangered species could limit future habitat, critics say Republicans dismiss Trump proposal to delay election Barrasso nuclear bill latest GOP effort to boost uranium mining MORE (R-Wyo.) pushed back at the idea that the administration didn’t do enough to convince senators of the merits of the bill.

“No, no,” Barrasso said, when asked if he thought the administration could have had a better message. “They are committed to fundamental healthcare reform in this country. They campaigned on it, they’ve been working very closely with us,” Barrasso told The Hill.

The back and forth in Washington is also reflective of a deeper fractiousness within the Republican Party. Divides between differing shades of conservatives had been papered over during President Obama’s time in the White House, the party bound together by a common adversary. But that is no longer the case.

“You have a political party that has too many disparate factions that just don’t agree on how to govern,” said Steve Deace, an Iowa-based conservative broadcaster. “They’re really good at being an opposition party. But when they win, those same groups that are unified in opposition can’t come together.”

The failure of the bill is a serious problem for both the president and his party. The stark reality is that they have no major legislative achievement to show for their first six months in control of the White House, the House and the Senate. 

Their sole big win has come with the confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court — a high point that McConnell hearkened back to on Tuesday

Just as victories can beget victories in Washington, the opposite is true. The outlook for other GOP goals like tax reform and infrastructure investment now looks even more uncertain. 

“Well, it admittedly makes it harder. … [But] we’re doing the best we can with the hand we’ve been dealt,” Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynSkepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal Republicans uncomfortably playing defense Negotiators hit gas on coronavirus talks as frustration mounts MORE (R-Texas) told reporters on Tuesday.

The question is whether that will be enough. Skeptics think it is equally plausible that the GOP base will grow frustrated and dispirited by the lack of action.

“Here’s the question,” said Deace. “Can we run on: We didn’t build the wall; we didn't repeal ObamaCare; we didn’t meaningfully cut taxes; we didn’t defund Planned Parenthood. But, boy, we gave you some killer CNN memes.

“I don’t know.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Nathaniel Weixel and Jordain Carney contributed.