Incredibly for someone who took his skills for marketing and branding straight from Fifth Avenue to the Oval Office, President Trump seems to lack a basic understanding of two of the most essential elements of getting things done in Washington: marketing and branding.
Trump is failing on Capitol Hill. His Obamacare repeal proposal is again in trouble in the House and looks like it will go nowhere in the Senate, even if it makes it across Capitol hill. He wants to win the next budget showdown in September, having lost the current one, and get priorities like the wall with Mexico funded and the sprawling federal “administrative state” defunded. And he wants massive tax cuts, which are going to be even trickier to pass than health care reform.
He is in danger of getting none of it.
I’ve covered the White House for a long time, and I’ve watched what works to pass major legislation. Extemporaneousness and shock and awe doesn’t work. Methodical effort and relentless political warfare does.
It worked for Bill Clinton’s effort to pass permanent normal trade relations with China, which he did during his last year as president, when he was supposed to be hobbling around as a lame duck. It worked for George W. Bush on tax cuts and adding a drug program to Medicare, though it admittedly failed him on Social Security reform. And yes, it worked for Obama on Obamacare.
Rather than casting buckshot all over the place, Trump needs to tee his agenda items up and knock them down. He has to choose an issue and then travel the country, blanket the airwaves, and fill up his Twitter feed with propaganda promoting what he wants to do. And he should bring in all the stakeholders in the business community and his other allies and get them on message and on CNN and Fox News.
The failure to do this is exactly the reason he is having so much trouble repealing Obamacare. Republican moderates are worried about losing their seats because they can read polls and know that some elements of Obamacare have become popular. This is because free stuff with an immediate payoff provided by the government is always popular. Republicans have the far more arduous task of explaining why Democrats’ free stuff is bad for everyone in the long run.
What a concerted campaign by the president, who has the greatest bully pulpit of all, would do is allow him to change public opinion and make moderates more comfortable getting behind him.
Republicans thought repealing Obamacare was just simply reversing a problem, like removing a splinter. But at this point, with Obamacare having wedged itself so deeply into society, they and Trump have to come to the realization that they are re-revamping the health care system, and a major effort is required.
Trump has to go out and hammer home, day after day, for months, the harm that Obamacare causes which, with the Democrats and their allies in the media dominating the debate, Americans have forgotten.
He needs to remind people that Obamacare’s “benefits” cost cash money that is prompting insurers to raise their rates and their deductibles. That they are tightening reimbursements for doctors and hospitals, which is causing some doctors to stop taking insurance altogether, and that this will result in a decline in the quality of care — and therefore, more death and disease. And eventually, yes, rationing of care, particularly near the end of life. Sarah Palin’s much-maligned Death Panels will be real, whether as actual panels or something more subtle.
When Democrats trot out their sob stories about people who will be harmed by repealing Obamacare, Trump must double down with the people who can’t afford their premiums, lost their doctors, and became ill or had a relative die because of incompetent care. And he must detail the financial and quality of care costs of forcing insurers to accept, without any caveats, people with pre-existing conditions, and describe the alternatives to such a system.
Meantime, the legislation should be working its way through Congress via regular order, meaning it is marked up in committees and not dictated to members by the congressional leadership. The advantage of going through the committees is that, while it takes longer, it promotes buy-in from members. Also, stakeholders and experts testify, and new ideas that can address lawmakers’ concerns bubble up from academics and others.
Then, after a months-long process, you put it on the floor for a vote. Lawmakers will be even more hesitant to oppose something the president has shown, through prolonged effort, is a priority, and that Congress has spent so much time on. And by selling it, as Trump can do better than perhaps any president before him, popular sentiment will have been altered enough to make legislators comfortable voting for his bill.
Maybe Trump needs to name all the legislation after himself. Trumpcare, Trump Tax Reform, the Trumpfrastructure bill, whatever. He’s comfortable selling Donald Trump, and he needs to make his legislation an extension of himself. Then he’ll have the gusto to employ from the West Wing, with resulting success on Capitol Hill, the skills he spent a lifetime developing: Branding and marketing.