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Trump extends the timeline for Obamacare replacement beyond 2020, easing pressure on the GOP

Key Points
  • A little more than a week after President Donald Trump launched a bid to rebrand the GOP as "the party of great healthcare," Trump appears ready to shelve the issue until after the 2020 election.
  • "The Republicans are developing a really great HealthCare Plan," Trump wrote. "Vote will be taken right after the Election when Republicans hold the Senate & win back the House."
  • The announcement represents a clear shift away from the urgency with which Trump talked last week about the need to devise a replacement for Obamacare.
President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a campaign rally on April 28, 2018 in Washington Michigan.
Getty Images

A little more than a week after President Donald Trump and the Republican Party launched a messaging blitz aimed at rebranding the GOP in 2020 as "the party of great healthcare," Trump on Monday night appeared ready to shelve the issue, following a week of legal setbacks and internal party strife over the best way to proceed.

"Everybody agrees that ObamaCare doesn't work," Trump wrote in a series of three tweets Monday night. "Premiums & deductibles are far too high — Really bad HealthCare! Even the Dems want to replace it, but with Medicare for all, which would cause 180 million Americans to lose their beloved private health insurance."

Setting aside Trump's claims about the potential impact of a "Medicare for All" system, the key line of Trump's Monday Twitter message was this: "Vote will be taken right after the Election when Republicans hold the Senate & win back the House."

The announcement represented a clear shift away from the urgency with which Trump talked last week about the need to devise a replacement for Obamacare and effectively created a two-year window for Republicans to come up with an alternative.

It also relieved pressure that had been mounting in both the White House and the Republican-controlled Senate in recent days to produce a replacement bill within months, one that could somehow advance through a Democratically controlled House.

Monday night's abrupt announcement was not unlike Trump's surprise declaration in a tweet a week ago, on March 26, that the GOP would become the "party of great healthcare." That tweet came on the heels of a controversial decision by the Justice Department to support a lawsuit aimed at dismantling key provisions of Obamacare.

Both the White House pivot and the DOJ decision caught Republicans off guard on Capitol Hill. It led to grumbling within the president's party that he was stepping on the good news stemming from the conclusion of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

According to Attorney General William Barr, Mueller's two-year probe uncovered no evidence that Trump's campaign coordinated with Russia in 2016 and did not amass enough evidence to merit pursuing obstruction-of-justice charges against the president.

Nonetheless, Trump spent the next several days bringing up health care at nearly every one of his public appearances. On seemingly parallel tracks, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel appeared on the Fox News and Fox Business channels to tout Trump's pivot to health care, while top Trump health care official Seema Verma placed an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal warning of the dangers of Medicare for All proposals.

The only place it seemed health care did not take center stage, however, was in Michigan, where Trump held a raucous campaign rally on Thursday night. There, the president devoted only four minutes of an 80-minute speech to promoting the GOP as the party of "great health care."

Like Trump, the crowd of his core supporters seemed equally blasé about health care. Instead of cheering Trump's promise to protect patients with pre-existing conditions, rally goers instead chose to boo the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., whose 2017 vote against repealing Obamacare dashed his party's plan to adopt a GOP replacement.

Enthusiasm for a sustained push to introduce an Obamacare replacement was equally hard to find on Capitol Hill, where on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters he had "made it clear" to the president in a call the day before that, "we were not going to be doing [an Obamacare repeal bill] in the Senate."

Asked whether there was "any daylight" remaining between him and the president on health care, McConnell smiled. "Not any longer," he replied. 

With so little gusto for tackling health-care reform from the president, his core supporters or congressional Republicans, it's easy to see how Trump's announcement extending the symbolic deadline for a GOP replacement plan to 2021 was the best available option for both the president in his party.

The move leaves Trump free to continue attacking both Obamacare in its current form, and 2020 Democratic candidates over their Medicare for All proposals. But it relieves him and his party of the need to come up with a replacement plan before the 2020 election.

It's a strategy that worked well for Trump in 2016, when as a candidate, he railed against Obamacare and pledged to "repeal and replace" the bill with something much better, but never quite explained what that might be.

On Monday morning, shades of this 2016 campaign tactic were already visible in at least one of Trump's tweets: "The cost of ObamaCare is far too high for our great citizens," Trump wrote. "Good things are going to happen!"

Nonetheless, if last fall's midterm elections were any indication, it may be Democrats, and not Trump, who stand to gain the most should the president continue to make health care a 2020 campaign issue.

"This was clearly a winning issue for the left in 2018," said former Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, a Trump critic who lost his House seat in November. "It was the issue they ran a lot of generic campaigns on and that yielded them 40 House seats," Curbelo told the Los Angeles Times. "So if the president wants to double down on that or have a repeat of 2018, then this makes perfect sense. It's just completely reckless and tone-deaf."

Democrats in Congress shared Curbelo's view of which party would benefit most from campaigning on health care.

"I just won my Senate race," Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., told The Washington Post last week. "And I talked about health care, a lot."