Health and Science

In Trump country, voters know who’s to blame for the health bill debacle. And it’s not their president

Max Sigelbaum & David Steen Martin
Campaign signs supporting Donald Trump and Mike Pence, are displayed on November 8, 2016 in Salem, Ohio.
Getty Images

They blame the establishment. They blame the Democrats. They blame the media.

But it seems that few voters in Trump country blame President Trump for the stunning collapse of the Republican-led effort to repeal and replace Obamacare.

"He did all he could, I think," said Edward Reede, 73, who was pacing the sidewalk as he waited for a relative in the rural town of Front Royal in northwest Virginia. "You can only do so much as president. You can only twist so many arms."

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STAT staffers fanned out across the country on Saturday, talking to voters in conservative pockets of Virginia, Colorado, Ohio, Nebraska, Georgia, and Tennessee. Again and again, they voiced their continuing support for the president — and their faith that he would fix the health care system eventually, even though this first effort went up in flames.

"We just need to give President Trump time," said Joleen Dudley, a real estate agent in Canton, Ga. "He isn't one to give up, or he wouldn't be a billionaire."

House Speaker Paul Ryan made it clear on Friday that he and his colleagues have no plans to return to health care, at least not anytime soon. "Obamacare is the law of the land," he said. "We're going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future."

But in the small towns and tidy suburbs that went decisively for Trump, voters said they just didn't believe their president would let that happen.

"I'm confident they'll get something done," said Mike Tomes, 56, who grows corn and soybeans in Utica, Neb.

"I'm a man of faith, and I believe that things are going to change," said Brian Bailey, 42, a landscape foreman in Murfreesboro, Tenn., a college town smack in the middle of the state. He blamed the Republican leadership in Congress for pushing too quickly to pass a bill that still needed some work.

"I don't know how long it's going to take, but I believe the right main course is set forth," Bailey said. "It's getting the details worked out."

Yet a day of talking to Trump voters across the country underscored just how tough it will be to ever work out details that appeal to all the fractious elements of his coalition.

In Seward, Neb., drugstore owner Michael J. Mueri is angry that he has to pay so much for insurance — $24,000 a year, he said. He's angry about high deductibles, too; his customers constantly complain about them. Yet he wasn't at all fond of conservatives' bid to try to drive down premiums by revoking the Obamacare mandate that all plans cover a bundle of "essential benefits," such as mental health care and maternity care.

If pregnancy checkups, childbirth, and newborn care aren't covered, Meuri said, "I'm not sure my kids can afford to have a baby."

Ditto for preventive screenings: He wants those covered, too. Otherwise, he said, "People won't get a colonoscopy. Too expensive. People will weigh the odds and roll the dice."

But in Kennesaw, Ga., a suburb on the northern fringe of Atlanta, landscaper Michael Davis has quite a different prescription for health care reform: He wants all the mandates laid out in Obama's Affordable Care Act gone. He wants the government role as limited as possible. He wants "true, conservative, free-market principles" to rule the day — and he suggests Senator Rand Paul's stripped-down health care bill is the place to start.

Davis, who's a vice chair of his county Republican party, said he thought the GOP failed this time around because the establishment tried to box out the true grassroots conservatives. "I think Trump kind of fell on board with it and was convinced," he said.

But he's not giving up on the president: "My expectations are that they would repeal it. That's what he said. That's what he ran on. That's what I believe his intentions are."

Trump himself seemed to promise as much in a tweet on Saturday:

Trump tweet 1

One of the few voters to express even mild disappointment with Trump was J.D. Kennedy, 77, a Vietnam veteran, retired auctioneer — and a regular at the City Cafe in Murfreesboro. He arrives there at 5 a.m. sharp, six days a week, and reads his local paper over coffee.

"I think he may have just ridden the wrong horse first. And that's ego that caused him to do that," Kennedy said. "If he had gone for tax breaks or infrastructure or any of the other things, it would have been easier, but he's not one to go for easy things."

And Kennedy made clear his faith in the president remains rock-solid: "He knows better," he said, "and he'll do better on the tax cuts."

The key is overcoming a biased media and rallying the country, said Melinda James, 54, a health care worker from Broadview Heights, Ohio. "No matter what happens, the media tries to side it one way," she said. "They don't give a clear picture of what's going on." James said she was disappointed the health care bill had failed.

"I really don't think people are trying to help Trump. We need to unify," she said. "We need to give him a chance."

Out west in the suburb of Castle Rock, Colo., a well-heeled city in one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, voters had plenty of ideas on how to parcel out blame for the collapse of an effort that the GOP has been pushing for seven years — and that Trump elevated to a central plank in his campaign.

In his feed store, which dates to 1902, owner Wayne Bennington diagnosed the problem as a failure of communication: Someone, somewhere dropped the ball on explaining to the American people just what the Republican bill did — and why they should support it, he said.

"Somebody needed to go on air and go through this explaining exactly what it is," said Bennington, 60, whose store is packed with livestock feed, leashes, cowboy boots, and carved wooden animals (some of them painted in Denver Broncos orange and blue). "Nobody knows what the bill is about, so if you push it through like that, shame on you."

Down the street, in a warehouse full of vendors, Bill Moye figured it was the Democrats who should take the fall, even though the GOP controls both houses of Congress and the White House. The Democrats, he said, are obstructionist. They don't want Republicans to get anything done.

A Vietnam vet, Moye sells taxidermy busts of animals he's hunted, as well as elk antler chandeliers he makes himself. He's happy with his health care, which he gets through Medicare and Veterans Affairs. And he thinks his fellow Americans shouldn't have to be afraid of losing insurance when they're struggling financially.

At the same time, Moye sounds wary of entitlements: "We're given too much in America."

That's a tough circle to square. But Moye has confidence in Trump.

"It's going to be rough," he said, "but I think eventually the new president will be the best we've ever had."

Reporters Keith Cartwright, Lev Facher, Max Blau, and Casey Ross contributed to this report.