ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The collapse of the Senate health care bill is a major setback for the Republican Party. It is especially problematic for President Trump, who promised the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, as one of the first things he would instruct Congress to do. Today at the White House the president had this to say.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: For seven years I've been hearing repeal and replace from Congress, and I've been hearing it loud and strong. And then when we finally get a chance to repeal and replace they don't take advantage of it. So that's disappointing.
SIEGEL: NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, has been watching the twists and turns on this bill and joins me now. And, Mara, for you, what's the big takeaway here for why this effort to repeal and replace Obamacare failed?
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, there's a couple takeaways. The biggest one is it's really hard to take benefits away from people, much easier to give them. And, you know, as unpopular as Obamacare was, it got more and more popular after the possibility of repeal began to seem real and not just a protest vote. Also, I think the internal divisions among Republicans were just too big to bridge even for someone with a reputation as a master legislator like Mitch McConnell.
You know, he only had two free passes. He gave them to Rand Paul and Susan Collins. They belong to two very different wings of the party. And I guess I would just say the last takeaway is the same lesson we thought we learned when Obamacare was passed, which is that big pieces of social legislation are not sustainable unless they have bipartisan buy-in. Obamacare didn't, and this one didn't either.
SIEGEL: President Trump said today that he doesn't own this failure, although Republicans have been running on doing this since 2012. What are the prospects for him and his party in 2018?
LIASSON: Well, most of the Republicans I talked to say that they will own health care from now on. And one of the interesting things about this whole episode is how little juice Donald Trump has with his own party on Capitol Hill. You know, he has dismal poll numbers overall, but they're strong with Republicans. But the master negotiator couldn't close the deal with his own party, and the master salesman never really got out and sold the replacement plan for what it would do positively. He just talked about the negatives of Obamacare.
So as far as 2018 goes, you know, Republican operatives have been saying that the price Republicans would pay for not fulfilling their campaign promise to repeal Obamacare would be much higher than even passing an extremely unpopular bill because their base will be demoralized for 2018. And today you heard Trump almost encouraging voters to be mad at Republicans when he said when they had a chance they just didn't do it as if he was the head of another party.
SIEGEL: One thing that's peculiar about this first shot out of the box, enormous legislative agenda for the Trump administration was I've never even seen a leak attributed to Donald Trump as to what it was that he wanted so desperately to replace Obamacare with. What was it that he wanted so much?
LIASSON: I don't think he ever knew. Don't forget he praised the House bill when it passed in that Rose Garden ceremony. A couple weeks later he was calling it mean. It was never clear what he wanted. The bottom line for the White House was they wanted something to sign. They wanted a win. He seemed disinterested in the details, and health care is all about the details. He just wanted something to sign in the end. And he didn't get it. And as you said, he never got out there and gave an interview even to a friendly reporter or a speech about the positive aspects of the replacement plan. All he did is talk about how Obamacare was imploding.
SIEGEL: Does this say something more broadly about the Republican Party and about what its prospects for cohesion are when it comes to a tax bill? Do they really all agree on what tax reform should be?
LIASSON: No. They have deep divisions. This is a deeply divided party. However, health care was never something that was a priority for them. This was mostly a Medicaid transformation and tax cut bill. It really wasn't about health care because that isn't a top priority for Republicans. They never thought that the government should get involved in the health care business in the first place. So I think that this is a deeply divided party. Success begat success and failure undermines cohesion even if they move on to something where on paper they're more unified on tax cuts than they were on health care.
SIEGEL: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks.
LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.