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Here’s why Trump will come out of health-reform debacle relatively unscathed

  • Health-care failures are documented poison for parties in power in Congress.
  • After the failed Obamacare-replacement bill, Republicans in Congress are now facing a major backlash in the 2018 midterms.
  • But President Trump has a much better chance of coming out of this relatively unscathed.
Donald Trump
Jabin Botsford | The Washington Post | Getty Images
Donald Trump

Regardless of whether you are a conservative, liberal, moderate, or none of the above, we can all pretty much agree that the failed GOP Obamacare replacement bill was garbage.

Of course, that's bad news for President Trump and the Republicans now that their efforts to fulfill a very clear promise are failing or at least seriously delayed. But if the status quo of failure on health care persists, their fates aren't going to be exactly the same.

For President Trump, despite his mixed messages on how to proceed with the bill and his general inability to lobby the GOP Senate, the stakes are lower. He will surely lose out on the possible boost in the polls he'd enjoy if a good replacement bill was passed relatively quickly, but his status is a lot stronger than Republicans in Congress for two important reasons.

First, President Trump hasn't been in office very long and the public knows health coverage overhauls aren't easy considering how long the Obama administration took to pass Obamacare even with a big Democratic Party majority in both houses of Congress.

"President Trump has broken a lot of traditional rules in American politics, but don't be surprised if he comes out relatively unscathed from this health bill debacle."

Second, President Trump doesn't have to go up for re-election next year. In 2018, all 240 Republicans in the House of Representatives and eight GOP Republican senators are up for re-election. Their time to turn this situation around is exactly 50 percent smaller than President Trump's.

And don't think that Trump can't use that time to recover politically even if the GOP Congress falters. That's what Bill Clinton did after his party lost control of Congress in 1994. A big part of that loss was connected to Clinton's failed health-care-reform effort. He seemed to do better as a deal-maker with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich on one hand and also as a representative of the common man during the Republican government shutdown of 1995-96. And he won re-election in 1996 by wider margins in both the Electoral College and popular vote than he did in 1992.

President Barack Obama still won re-election in 2012 after the Democrats were routed from control of the House in 2010. And that loss was also health-policy related as the public wasn't happy with Obamacare even though it actually passed. Even Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer now says passing Obamacare in 2010 was a political mistake for the Democrats.

In both cases, those presidents seem to appeal more to the American public as a foil to a Congress controlled or mostly controlled by the opposing party. And anyone who knows President Trump's combative nature has to recognize that he could thrive in such an atmosphere as well.

But that's all about a presidency with no coattails. President Trump's call on Tuesday for the public to elect more Republicans to Congress in order to get an Obamacare-replacement bill passed isn't likely to help the GOP incumbents at all. Remember that the public is responding to health-coverage bills it doesn't like, not playing partisan team sports. Health-care failures or perceived failures are documented poison for the parties in power in Congress. The GOP is headed for the same fate in 2018 unless a bill that's actually popular with the public passes, and that's becoming more of a long shot every day.

President Trump has broken a lot of traditional rules in American politics, but don't be surprised if he comes out relatively unscathed from this health bill debacle. Everyone else has much more to worry about.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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