As his party’s healthcare plan imploded Monday night, President Trump could look across the country to the state he seems to disdain the most and see success forged by the very thing he ran against: old-fashioned politics.
California Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative Democrats worked with Republicans to craft a climate change measure that found just enough support among Republicans to pass even though many in the party continue to oppose it.
The victory was surely propelled by the Democratic advantage in the Legislature, but undeniably benefited from the singular focus of an executive steeped in government experience and willing to publicly plead and deliver concessions to get his measure over the line.
The effort to repeal and replace Obamacare was marked by neither those executive attributes, nor the overwhelming partisan advantage. Together, that made all the difference.
Brown ran for his second set of terms as governor by promising to meld his outsider spirit with a realistic notion of how to govern, based on his tenures as mayor of Oakland, attorney general and, for 14 years now, governor.
Trump ran as an outsider who reveled in his lack of experience and insisted that he would be able to solve the nation’s problems — alone and easily. That has not proven to be the case, as demonstrated most potently by the destruction of the Republican healthcare plan at the hands of Republican senators.
“You can be anti-institution all you want, but you have to know not just how to run a government, but how to run a governing coalition,” said Republican strategist Rob Stutzman. “It would appear this is beyond, so far beyond, the president’s grasp. This is the danger of having someone as president who has never played in politics.”
On both coasts, the fights betrayed splits among Republicans. Trump repeatedly tried to blame Democrats for the failure of the repeal-and-replace bill, but schisms among Republicans were what doomed the measure.
The decision by Republican leaders not to work with Democrats meant that they could afford defiance by no more than two Senate Republicans — and gave them nowhere to go when more opposition arose.
In California, schisms arose between Republicans who found the climate bill a decent deal and those who scorned the Democrats’ concessions as insufficient. But enough Republicans — seven in the Assembly and one in the state Senate — sided with the Democratic majority to offset minimal Democratic nay votes and secure passage.
The willingness of some Republicans here to cooperate with Democrats — and the contrast between that compromise and the harder gridlock in Washington — involves differences between the national and state Republican DNA.
In many parts of California, and in statewide races, success for Republicans has often depended on moderation on certain issues, especially environmental ones. Nationally, that’s not been true for the party in the last decade.
Pete Wilson, a former U.S. senator and two-term governor, anchored much of his statewide success by taking moderate positions on the environment. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made climate change a key component of his tenure and continues to work on the issue, often needling Trump for positions such as abandoning the Paris climate agreement.
The need to come to terms with voters who put a high priority on environmental issues was enough to cause some Republicans in Sacramento to break with the party’s aversion to taxes.
The eight Republicans who voted with Brown accepted higher taxes as the price for extending by 10 years the cap-and-trade program, which helps regulate greenhouse gases. Many represent areas where the environment has long been a key issue.
By contrast, in Washington, the drive to cut taxes was a key element in the Republican healthcare package.
Schwarzenegger on Tuesday lauded what he termed a “courageous vote” and took a subtle dig at Republicans in Washington.
“I hope Republicans around the country can learn from the example … that we can fight for free-market policies to clean up our environment for our children at the same time we fight for a booming economy,” he said in a statement posted on Facebook.
But the biggest difference between the somewhat bipartisan effort in California and the collapse of the Republican-only healthcare effort in Washington rested on the behavior of the chief executives.
Brown spent decades being derided by more conventional politicians across the nation for ahead-of-his-time pitches on topics like computers and state satellites — the genesis of the “Gov. Moonbeam” insult.
He has sometimes been outside the mainstream even for liberal audiences; he ran the precursor to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign more than two decades before Sanders did.
But in his long turn on the political stage, he has also honed a respect for what can and cannot be pulled off and for the sort of horse-trading that is central to accomplishing anything of note.
The cap-and-trade measure was opposed by some on the left and the right but succeeded by being acceptable to a larger middle. Both the GOP healthcare plan and the measure it was meant to replace, Obamacare, were fully partisan votes, which in both cases has contributed to lasting animosity from the other side.
Although Brown and his Democratic allies attempted to pick off Republicans with a unified front, in Washington, there appeared to be three sides to the healthcare equation: Democrats, Republicans and Trump.
Trump has been all over the map when it came to his goals for healthcare reform. After pledging in the campaign that he would protect the Medicaid program, which was expanded under Obamacare, and make sure those who couldn’t afford insurance would still receive care, he flipped on both those issues to support the GOP bill. He also went back and forth on whether Republicans should repeal and replace Obamacare simultaneously or simply repeal it.
The president has seemed unaware of many of the policy details in the Republican plans. That cast the healthcare vote as something that he valued solely for its potential for victory, regardless of the impact it might have on Americans or his own party’s elected officials.
In recent days, the president publicly put Senate leader Mitch McConnell on notice about passing the bill, yet complicated McConnell’s work by going after Republican senators. Earlier, after House Republicans voted for their version of the healthcare plan, one that was risky for dozens of them, Trump cut off the limb behind them by calling their plan “mean.”
On Tuesday, Trump declared that the failure was not his.
“We’re not going to own it. I’m not going to own it,” he said of the nation’s healthcare system, which he described as failing.
Brown took the opposite tack, going so far as to appear before a legislative committee as the climate bill progressed — a position usually deemed beneath the state’s chief executive. He was vehement in demanding the measure’s passage.
“I’m not here about some cockamamie legacy that people talk about,” the 79-year-old governor said. “This isn’t for me. I’m going to be dead. It’s for you.”
That spoke to some central truths about politics: Americans want it to be about them, not about the politicians. And they also value effort, successful or not.
Brown succeeded on both fronts. Trump did not, and in his flippant remarks amid the wreckage, he gave little indication any lesson had been learned.