Congressional Democratic leaders thought they were being very clever yesterday when they rolled out the slogan they will use to highlight efforts to save ObamaCare. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer seemed particularly pleased with the parody of Donald Trump’s campaign slogan that said Republicans would “Make America Sick Again.” Their confidence was boosted by the apparent confusion among some Republicans about their plans including a vague statement from House Speaker Paul Ryan that betrayed a lack of certainty about what exactly would replace the Affordable Care Act. The sign also provoked President-elect Trump to direct one of his trademark Twitter broadsides at the Democrats calling Schumer his party’s “head clown” and asserting that the law they were defending was based on “a lie from the beginning.”
In response, Schumer chided Trump for “name calling” and failing to realize their disagreement was about “serious stuff.” Schumer is right that the stakes couldn’t be higher for both parties as well as the country. But Democrats are wrong if they think they got the better of the exchange.
The substantial debate about the merits of replacing ObamaCare with one or some combination of the various proposals being floated has yet to really begin. While Schumer’s quip about the GOP being the moral equivalent of a dog who catches the bus its been chasing has some merit, until Trump and Ryan announce their plan it will be easy for liberals to claim that they have no idea about what they want to do. Suffice it to say that whether they like it or not, Democrats know that Republicans have, as the New York Times neatly outlined, the tools to dismantle President Obama’s chief domestic legacy and are in doubt about their determination to do just that.
Right now, the main battle isn’t so much about substance as it is a battle over messaging and, unfortunately for Democrats, that’s a battle that may turn out to be something of a mismatch. With their slogan in hand, Schumer and company are playing by the old rules of political combat in which a pithy comment at a news conference or favorable coverage in the mainstream media can win a news cycle or influence wavering legislators. They forget that their main opponent isn’t the wonkish and principled Ryan, or even a master legislative tactician like Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Those are foes that they understand and can deal with. When it comes to dealing with Trump, they may be out of their league.
Even after a year of watching the billionaire reality star manipulate coverage and use social media to go directly to voters rather than through the filter of the mainstream media, the Democrats think his successes are still a fluke. They persist in treating a leader who tweets rather than negotiates or huddles with his strategists as something of a fool. But, as I noted yesterday, Trump’s ability to harness the immediacy and reach of social media to the power of his new position is something new in American politics. It’s an imprecise weapon, but its impact is impressive. Moreover, by mocking Trump as they did with “make America sick again,” Schumer and House Minority Leader were inviting him to respond with trademark insults that will stick to them more than their quips will to his Teflon hide.
Trump’s approach is basic and crude. The issue is more complicated than the Democrats’ leader being a “clown” and ObamaCare, for all of its many flaws and the damage that it has done, is more than just a “lie.” But, as he demonstrated time and again in 2016 and again in his initial jousts with major firms planning moves to Mexico and unruly House Republicans, Trump’s method works. In a messaging contest, Trump’s harping about Obama’s lies and Schumer’s image will have more of an impact than dull arguments about the GOP making us sick. Having sought out a brawl with a gutter fighter rather than the more gentlemanly Ryan, Democrats should not be surprised when the combatant who is prepared to do or say anything to hobble his opponents prevails.
This is just the opening skirmish of what should be a titanic struggle in which Schumer and Pelosi are not without cards to play. But if Democrats think they can win a contest that will determine the success or failure of the new administration’s first months in office by mixing it up with Trump, they are dreaming.