WASHINGTON, D.C.: President Donald Trump took aim at a fellow Republican who opposes his healthcare reform plan Wednesday, in a bid to squash dissent that presents a major test to his presidential punch.
After years of Republican efforts to rip up Barack Obama’s emblematic healthcare law, it remains unclear whether Trump has enough support to get his replacement across the finish line, even with Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress.
Trump singled out one dissenter – Kentucky senator and former presidential primary rival Rand Paul – in a tweet, and he is finalizing plans to travel to the lawmaker’s home state on Saturday.
“I feel sure that my friend @RandPaul will come along with the new and great health care program because he knows Obamacare is a disaster!” Trump tweeted.
Despite the cordial tone, Trump’s message is being seen as a clear warning to Republicans who may be thinking about opposing his policies.
Republicans on Capitol Hill have long feared Trump’s wrath, working on the assumption that presidential opprobrium on Twitter could lead to political headaches.
The president – despite low national approval ratings – is the most popular Republican in many states and congressional districts.
Paul garnered 57 percent of the vote during his re-election last year. Trump won the state with 63 percent of the vote. Paul is up for reelection in 2022.
“On a purely ideological level, Donald Trump is probably the better fit with Kentucky than Rand Paul’s libertarian republicanism,” said Stephen Voss, a professor of political science at the University of Kentucky.
Trump had few qualms about bashing fellow Republicans during his bruising presidential campaign – from “little Marco” Rubio to “Lying Ted” Cruz.
Attacks on his rivals only underscored his outsider appeal, one of the key reasons he won last November’s election.
Now, as president, Trump is using the bully pulpit to press through legislation.
But the author of the “Art of the Deal” is struggling to get his healthcare plan enacted.
Conservatives like Paul have dubbed it “Obamacare Lite.”
But Trump’s decision to attack the dissenting senator could prove risky.
If Trump cannot change Paul’s mind and fails to get enough Senate votes to pass his healthcare plan, it would be a body blow to his presidency.
Voss warned the attack on Paul could also backfire, with Kentuckians backing the local politician rather than the man in Washington.
“More commonly what you’d see in situations like this is not that the public will pick side with whose policies are closer to their preference, but they are more likely to see this as a distant figure picking on a local political figure,” he said.
And in Paul, Trump has chosen a difficult target, one who has repeatedly shown a fiercely independent streak.
“He’s tried to build a career as a person who tweaks if not actively criticizes his own party, it doesn’t really do him a lot of harm to have Trump reaffirming his independence,” said Voss.
“Rand Paul has done a decent job keeping his name in the news through political theater” he said “this is great publicity for him.”
For Trump the failure to browbeat Paul and the collapse of healthcare reform would be terrible publicity, undermining his self-professed deal making prowess.
“Make no mistake the president is very proud of the product produced,” said White House press secretary Sean Spicer. “I think he’s very much in a sell mode.”