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When the AHCA (American Health Care Act) was pulled before being put to a vote, Tea Party conservatives and grassroots liberal activists were given credit in equal measure. One undercovered factor in the AHCA’s defeat is the long simmering feud between Donald Trump and Paul Ryan. Not only are the President and the Speaker of the House ideological enemies, they simply don't like each other. Here is a history of the feud that might have saved 30 million people’s health insurance, and may yet tear the Republican Party apart.
A Tale of Two Conservatives
To get to the root of the animosity between Trump and Ryan, you have to start with the ideological differences between the Speaker of the House and White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. Bannon and Ryan come from two distinct ideological factions in the conservative movement. Bannon is interested primarily in the nationalistic aspects of the Republican platform. The border wall, Muslim ban, and War on Terror all advance Bannon’s fascism-tinged political dreams. Ryan, by contrast, is a fiscal hawk, always looking for a way to slash budgets and send money to the wealthy elites. Ryan’s taste for nationalism and dog whistles only extends as far as it wins working class votes for a ruling class agenda.
These dueling apocalyptic visions for America — wealthy oligarchy vs. white nationalist autocracy — trickle into every aspect of Bannon and Ryan’s politics. The Hill outlined ten areas of difference between Ryan and Bannon. Ryan opposes the Muslim ban. Bannon opposes the TPP. Ryan wants to gut Medicare. Bannon is suspicious of eminent domain. Issue after issue, Ryan and Bannon stand in ideological opposition to one another.
The antagonism between the two of them dates back to when Bannon was editor-in-chief at Breitbart. While he was working there, he told employees to write articles aimed at, “[destroying] Paul Ryan’s political career.” This quest was incredibly evident during Bannon’s tenure at Breitbart, as the site devoted lots of space to anti-Ryan articles. Now the feud has moved from the blogosphere to the Capitol steps.
Trump's Ability to Hold a Grudge
Trump’s views aren't as firm and inflexible as Bannon’s. While Bannon has long been a enthno-nationalist ideologue, Trump has never demonstrated a clear grasp of political issues, yet alone a coherent ideology. You get the sense that he would have campaigned on any platform that could get him elected. Two things we know Trump does believe in are loyalty and revenge. As the Bannon/Ryan feud spilled into the primary, Ryan found himself at odds with Donald Trump, and poised to feel the full brunt of Trump’s two guiding principles.
For much of the primary, Paul Ryan stayed quiet. His closest ideological allies were pushed out of the race, and when it came down to hardline social conservative Ted Cruz and blowhard populist Donald Trump, Ryan was a man without a candidate. As the New York Times described it, Ryan was “hoping that his party’s nominee for president would simply get across the finish line, dragging congressional Republicans across with him.” Ryan waited until June to endorse Trump, well after he became the presumptive nominee.
Then, last October, after Trump’s Access Hollywood “grab her by the pussy” audio was released, the consensus was that Trump was done. Republicans moved to salvage their electoral majority. Ryan jumped on the opportunity to distance himself from Trump, and in turn, Trump called Ryan a “very weak and ineffective leader.” Trump and Ryan had been scheduled to appear together at a campaign event in Wisconsin, and Trump was asked not to attend.
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Tensions simmered between the two leading up to the election, but winning can heal wounds, at least for a time. After the Republicans took every chamber of government on election night, Ryan said, “Donald Trump heard a voice out in this country that no one else heard. He connected in ways with people no one else did. He turned politics on its head.” With the potential of rolling back Obama era policies on the table, the two factions were able to minimize their conflict for a few months. Other than some minor skirmishes over pharmaceutical reform and behind the scenes scuffles over the various proposed Muslim bans, the two largely managed to put their difference behind them… for a little while.
The Healthcare Trap
The AHCA marked Congress’s first big attempt to pass legislation under the new government, and it was a huge failure for both Ryan and Trump. For Ryan, this was an indictment of his austere policy agenda. To his right, the Freedom Caucus wanted the AHCA to go further; to his left, moderates feared a vote for the AHCA was a political death sentence. Now, it is in doubt whether the Republicans can pass any kind of healthcare reform. For Trump, the contents of the AHCA didn’t really matter, what was important to him was setting himself up as a winner and dealmaker. It looked like healthcare reform would be a good first, powerful step. Given the depths of Obamacare hatred in the Republican Party, the bill should have been a slam dunk. It turns out that it wasn’t. Trump and his people immediately blamed Ryan for the bill’s failure, while Ryan felt betrayed by various factions of his party.
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After this newfound tension over the AHCA, neither side has backed down from their ideological perch. It’s back to the same old infighting for Trump and Ryan. They’ve even sent their surrogates after each other. Trump allegedly communicated his wish for Ryan to step down through Fox’s Jeanine Pirro, who called for Ryan’s resignation. Congressional Republicans, aides, and White House staffers have thrown criticism at both men. For Ryan and Trump, it’s back to their natural position: at each other’s throats.