Trump: I’m ‘very proud of my executive order’ on health care

President Trump tweeted Saturday he is “very proud” of his recently-signed executive order on health care.

“Very proud of my Executive Order which will allow greatly expanded access and far lower costs for HealthCare,” Trump tweeted. “Millions of people benefit!”

Trump also claimed that health insurance stocks fell after his decision to end key ObamaCare payments was announced.

“Health Insurance stocks, which have gone through the roof during the ObamaCare years, plunged yesterday after I ended their Dems windfall!” Trump tweeted. 

CNBC reported Friday that two large insurance companies, Centene and Anthem, saw their stocks drop after Trump’s announcement. Multiple hospital and health-care companies also saw their stocks decline.


Trump signed an executive order Thursday which seeks to expand the ability of small businesses and other groups to join together in purchasing health insurance through association health plans. It also seeks to lift limits on short-term health-care plans. The order directs agencies to write new rules.

Experts warned the order could destabilize the ObamaCare markets as cheaper, less-effective plans could drive people away from ObamaCare plans.

Trump also faced criticism for his decision to end key ObamaCare payments known as cost-sharing reduction payments. The payments are worth an estimated $7 billion this year and they subsidize insurance plans for low-income people.

Insurers have said that, without the payments, they will either have to increase premiums or exit the individual markets.

Democrats blasted Trump for the decision to end the payments, with Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) calling the decision a “spiteful act of vast, pointless sabotage.”

Trump’s decision has also already spawned legal action, with 18 states and Washington, D.C., announcing Friday that they would sue Trump to stop him from ending the payments.

How Nixon Turned Football into a Political Weapon

Nine months into his presidency, as protests swelled over the war in Vietnam, Richard Nixon turned to a subject he thought would change the narrative: professional football.

On October 15 and November 15, 1969, anti-war marchers held massive demonstrations. In October, an estimated three million people flooded the streets (including 200,000 in New York and 100,000 on Boston Common) in an unprecedented show of force, challenging the Nixon administration’s right to speak for the country. The marches put president on the defensive. He had compounded his problems three weeks before the first one by boasting, “under no circumstances will I be affected whatever.” The remark, which came across as dismissive of the opinions of much of the population, also prompted reporters to ask the march’s organizers for a response, elevating them to the president’s level. And so, Nixon and his combative vice president Spiro Agnew learned to appropriate football as friendly political terrain, and to use the sport to distinguish friend from foe.

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It’s a playbook Donald Trump and his own vice president, Mike Pence, have deployed in recent weeks as they struggle with low approval ratings and a string of recent failures in Congress. Trump has railed against NFL players who kneel during the national anthem to protest police violence and racism, denouncing them as unpatriotic and browbeating the league into banning the practice altogether. And Pence, in an incident widely seen as a political stunt, left a Colts-49ers game early last week because, he tweeted, “@POTUS and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem.”

Nixon would have recognized this strategy and nodded approvingly, though he might have blanched at the crudeness of Trump’s execution. But there’s a major difference between Nixon and Trump: Nixon wasn’t just cynically using the game for political purposes—he was a football fanatic who cynically used the game for political purposes. For Nixon—pro football’s own president, according to sportswriter Jim Murray—the personal truly was political.


Nixon looked like nobody’s idea of a star athlete, but his connections to football, as player and fan, ran deep. Though he rode the bench as a backup lineman and did not letter, he frequently credited his coach at Whittier College, Wallace “Chief” Newman, with teaching him never to quit at a formative stage of his life. He officially kicked off his first campaign for president on the same field in 1960, before 20,000 roaring supporters. Nixon thanked Newman when accepting the Republican nomination in 1968 and wrote in In the Arena, his final memoir, “I learned more about life sitting on the bench with Chief Newman than I did by getting A’s in philosophy courses.” From the 1950s onward, he often mused about an alternate career as a sportswriter. As a fan, Nixon talked such a good game that “even some life-long Democrats were promising to vote for him,” wrote Football News, against John F. Kennedy after he spoke to the Football Writers’ Association in 1959.

Of course, Nixon hoped to politicize football as well. Professional football let him stage the quintessential Nixonian gesture. Going to games was at once a sincere emotional response and a productive wedge issue that targeted the audience he most coveted, middle-American fans, whose rowdy behavior at NFL games Time described as “the Silent Majority at its noisiest.”

Eleven days before the October march, Nixon attended the Miami Dolphins’ home game against the Oakland Raiders, which ended in a tie. The quantity and tone of the coverage quickly became a front in the administration’s war on the media. Nixon bristled that Newsweek had failed to report the ovation he’d received at the game. The alternative press was already lambasting the president. “Little Dick Nixon, always the smallest punk on the football team, has finally been sworn in as captain,” Stew Albert sneered in the Berkeley Barb. Influential mainstream voices, however, sympathized with what Nixon was doing. “Games fascinate and divert him from his problems,” the seasoned political journalist James Reston wrote approvingly in the New York Times. “So he watches the games, not only because it is good politics, but because it is an escape from his normal problems that have no rules and no end.”

Nixon nevertheless ordered White House Communications Director Herb Klein to generate letters of protest to Newsweek’s editor to demonstrate the public’s “deep enthusiasm” for the president’s efforts. Klein agreed, though he later admitted in his autobiography that the press the administration received that fall was actually “better than we expected.” Both the protests over insufficient adoration and the consequent fabrication of compensatory “popular” opinion are eerily familiar.

The complaints were also disingenuous. Miami papers had, in fact, pointed out that Nixon’s introduction brought the fans to their feet and “set a mood for the evening.” The front page of the News depicted him grinning and autographing a Vikings pennant, absolutely relaxed and at home in the stands; the Herald showed him cheering alongside his confidant Bebe Rebozo.

A week after the march, Agnew continued the assault, delivering his notorious attack on the “effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals” and sapped national manhood by opposing the war. Earlier that day, he’d watched his beloved Baltimore Colts beat the New Orleans Saints, the occasion around which his trip had been scheduled. Louisiana’s Republican state finance chair, somewhat overexcited by the vice president’s visit, floated the prospect of commemorating Agnew’s appearance at the game with performances by the Air Force Drum and Bugle Corps, the Naval Training Center’s “50 Flag” drill team, a Navy choir, and a color guard from assorted units. Should this not dramatize sufficient patriotism, perhaps a military fly-by or a parachute drop by the Army’s Golden Knights, who would land before the anthem concluded and plant flags in the turf? Agnew and his wife ultimately just sat in the stands, but the seed had been planted.

The October march stung Nixon. He worried it created the perception that he had let the protesters seize control of the narrative. The protest, Nixon wrote in his memoirs, “had destroyed whatever small possibility may still have existed of ending the war in 1969. But there was nothing I could do about that now.” So he invoked the pro-American truths of football to counter anti-Americanism. With the next march scheduled for November 15, the administration proclaimed November 10-16 “National Unity Week,” to be celebrated nationwide with flag displays and what a White House memo to special presidential assistant Dwight Chapin called “pro-administration propaganda” at football games. The memo suggested a concerted program celebrating “united effort” at halftime: “perhaps all games could have a red, white, and blue theme or all halftimes begin with ‘God Bless America’ and end with ‘This Land Is Your Land.’”

On the day of the November march, Nixon devoted the morning to foreign policy and announced to reporters that he was going to spend the afternoon the right way: “It was a good day to watch a football game.” Press secretary Ron Ziegler later said that he had no way to know whether the president had at any time glanced out the window at the streets around the White House.

Nixon’s remark struck many observers as outrageous. “For sheer piquancy, we have not heard the likes of that since Marie Antoinette,” the Washington Post editorial board seethed. Two years later, the influential little magazine Partisan Review identified this moment as key to what was wrong with Nixon: “the trouble … isn’t that he watches football but that he makes such an obvious and cheap political gesture of it.” And for good and ill, Nixon’s move resonated because the calculated insult felt, at some level, like a real declaration of sentiments. Daniel Ellsberg, the RAND Corporation researcher and Vietnam War dissenter who leaked the Pentagon Papers, later recalled that whenever he spoke about his experiences inside the administration and out, everybody in the audience remembered that, on the day that millions marched for peace, Nixon watched a football game. The next day, Nixon became the first sitting president to attend a regular-season NFL game, watching the Dallas Cowboys beat the Washington Redskins at RFK Stadium.

Perhaps surprisingly, for Nixon football was a political gesture rather than a racial dog whistle: He avidly coveted the backing of African-American players like Jim Brown and Gale Sayers, both of whom endorsed him in 1972. Nixon would see Sayers “anytime he was available,” the president’s assistant promised. “His endorsement should receive as wide dissemination as possible to bolster our black vote effort. This meeting would be the best means to effect that end.” The administration channeled aid to what it described as “black athlete-entrepreneurs,” more than a thousand of whom opened businesses in 1969 alone. When Agnew denounced dissident athletes by name, all of them (Dave Meggyesy, George Sauer, Jack Scott) were white. Meggyesy, a former St. Louis Cardinal linebacker and antiwar activist who announced his retirement in the spring of 1969, famously charged that “it’s no accident that the most repressive regime in our history is ruled by a football freak.” He attacked professional football as the worst kind of catharsis, “Middle America’s theater, Nixon’s theater . . . laid out every Sunday.”

Nixon and Agnew’s attempts to associate themselves with football had another political purpose: to position them as regular Joes. Herb Klein wrote a memo explicitly encouraging Nixon to appear at the Super Bowl because “the president’s association with athletics is a major asset in relating to sports fans as not only a strong leader, but a ‘regular guy.’” Like Nixon, Agnew was a genuine football fanatic—he was one of the Colts’ first 50 season-ticket holders and missed only two home games in 20 years before the 1968 election campaign forced him to miss the season opener. As Maryland governor, he had the team over for dinner on occasion and touted the endorsement of half the Colts’ roster during his successful election campaign in 1966. Agnew owned an autographed photograph of ferocious middle linebacker Mike Curtis, an outspoken conservative, and sent Curtis a crystal ashtray decorated with his own autograph and the vice-presidential seal as a wedding present. The Colts gave Agnew an expensive watch for his birthday in 1969 and set aside seats in the owner’s box for him when he was on the campaign trail in 1972. As vice president, he often popped into the locker room before games, where he would kibbitz with players and his friend, team owner Carroll Rosenbaum. Unlike Pence, Agnew would never have left a Colts game early.

The sportswriter Robert Lipsyte, who detested Nixon, remembered that the only time he found the man “even vaguely sympathetic” was while watching him reminisce at a football banquet about games from the 1930s. From the late 1950s through the end of his presidency, Nixon argued that football’s values were good for the nation—that invoking football metaphors, going to football games and celebrating football players simply expressed support for the things he liked. “What does this mean, this common interest in football, of presidents, of leaders, of people generally? It means … the character, the drive, the pride, the teamwork, the feeling of being in a cause bigger than yourself,” he told the National Football Foundation in 1969.

Nixon was so obsessed with football that he showed up at Redskins practices and huddled with the players. He sent Redskins coach George Allen a shoebox full of encouraging notes, had his top assistants Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman help Etty Allen find the family a place to live when Allen was hired, and even invited Allen and his family to a state dinner. At least twice, he phoned NFL coaches to recommend they call certain plays—famously, he urged Redskins quarterback Billy Kilmer to try a risky double reverse in the upcoming playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers. In the second quarter, with the ball on the 8-yard line, Allen told Kilmer to go for it. The trick play backfired miserably, ending in a 13-yard loss, followed by a blocked field goal on the next down. The 49ers won the game 24-20—and many Redskins fans blamed Nixon. Undaunted, the next year he phoned Miami coach Don Shula after midnight to suggest a down-and-in pass to Paul Warfield in the Super Bowl. “His only objective is to prevent the Dolphins from imposing their totalitarian type of football on the peace-loving Washington team,” joked syndicated humor columnist Art Buchwald. When huddling with staff and friends in the Cabinet Room just before resigning the presidency in 1974, Nixon returned to the theme that football had taught him how to lose, emphasizing his ability to “take what’s coming to me.” He even delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Ohio State coach Woody Hayes.

In the broadest sense, Nixon and Agnew’s gambit worked: Not only did they fend off the anti-war movement and buy more time for their phased drawdown strategy in Vietnam, but they rode the backlash against the 1960s counter-culture the protesters represented to victory in 1972. Nixon was re-elected in an epic landslide against George McGovern, who he painted as the candidate of “acid, amnesty and abortion.” And by then candidates on both left and right were showing up at football games and cultivating endorsements from football players and coaches. Esquire even invited Nixon to cover the Super Bowl that fall.

Like Nixon, the dovish South Dakota senator was never much of an athlete—his father, a Methodist minister, had discouraged it. “If you’re as clumsy as I am,” he said, “you’re particularly pleased to get support from the playing field.” But he too cultivated support from local athletic celebrities. Redskins lineman Ray Schoenke, in search of a candidate who opposed the war, showed up at McGovern’s office without an appointment in the summer of 1971. Minutes later, he was convincing the senator to put together a team of athletes. “You were a war hero,” he advised McGovern, a decorated bomber pilot in World War II, so “get yourself photographed alongside some big defensive linemen” to attest that he possessed the aggression and authority necessary for a president. More than 20 of Schoenke’s teammates hit the hustings for Athletes for McGovern in the summer and fall of 1972 “as citizens and concerned people,” wide receiver Roy Jefferson explained, “not as commercial objects used to sell hair cream and razor blades.” McGovern sat down for an hour-long conversation with the Kansas City Chiefs’ Ed Podolak, who had pored through the candidate’s position papers but was sold by McGovern’s support for family farms. Podolak ultimately put in what he estimated at 10,000 miles of travel, “at significant sacrifice in time and money,” on behalf of McGovern in Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, California and New York.

Bob Stein, Podolak’s teammate, promised that unlike Nixon, McGovern would “send in plays for touchdowns, not 15-yard losses.” McGovern joked that he supported “both the offense and the defense” in football, “another real forthright McGovern position” and later promised not to besiege coaches and quarterbacks with play designs should he win. But it was all for naught: In the end, McGovern won only 17 electoral votes in the second-most lopsided presidential defeat in American history.


In some ways, Trump and Pence are victims of the success of Nixon and Agnew, who so normalized going to football games that there’s no political juice left in that maneuver. The only way for Pence to wring more out of it was not to go to the game—even though his departure from Lucas Oil Stadium constituted an act of pure political theater. In addition to holding the traveling press pool outside the stadium after Pence entered, an obvious hint that he wouldn’t be staying long, the vice president tweeted a slightly color-shifted picture of himself and his wife in Colts’ gear from 2014 that intended to convey the impression, however feeble, that he’d meant to stay.

Will anybody remember Pence’s departure in 30 years? Doubtful. But conservative sites celebrated the spectacle as “exactly what was needed.” And what was needed? Apparently, a Trumpian refinement of the old Nixonian culture wars. When the Ravens took a knee before the anthem, “for kindness, for unity, for equality and justice for all Americans,” fans booed anyway. When the Packers linked arms in solidarity, their fans chanted “U-S-A!” The NFL’s TV ratings are down 18 percent from 2015, the season before Colin Kaepernick began to kneel, and DirecTV, which hosts NFL Sunday Ticket, has offered refunds to fans who cite anthem protests as the reason for canceling their subscriptions. This administration’s public spectacles are halfhearted reenactments of Nixonian originals. The trouble isn’t that Trump and Pence politicize football, but that they’ve managed to make an even more obvious, cheap—and successful—gesture of it.

Jesse Berrett is a writer and teacher in San Francisco. His book Pigskin Nation: How the NFL Reshaped American Politics, will be published in April 2018 by the University of Illinois Press.

The Original Corker-Trump Feud

Last week, when Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker lobbed a rhetorical grenade at President Donald Trump, likening his White House to an “adult daycare center” and expressing public concern that the commander-in-chief was reckless enough to start “World War III,” Washington hands called the comments alarming. And when the president shot back, launching a Twitter rampage against “Liddle Bob” and blaming him for the “horrendous Iran Deal,” they said the burgeoning feud was unprecedented.

It was certainly unusual, but it wasn’t unprecedented.

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Fifty years ago, Lyndon Johnson was locked in a bitter feud with another chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee—J. William Fulbright, an Arkansas Democrat who came to doubt both the wisdom of America’s war in Vietnam and LBJ’s fundamental honesty about its cost, scale and outlook.

There was more to their fight than just two proud men differing over an issue. Johnson resented Fulbright not just for second-guessing his foreign policy, but for surfacing fundamental defects in his leadership style—defects that would ultimately prove his undoing. Their rancor may offer a lens through which to understand the hot war between Trump and Corker.


Fulbright and Johnson had known each other for 25 years at the time of their falling out. They served together in the House of Representatives from 1941 to 1945, and while Fulbright beat LBJ to the Senate by four years, he would prove a loyal member of the Southern caucus that elevated Johnson to the post of majority leader.

The two men were of sharply contradictory dispositions: LBJ was earthy and coarse, while Fulbright, a former Rhodes Scholar who became president of the University of Arkansas at the unlikely young age of 35, was urbane and erudite. (Not everyone appreciated his frequent lapses into sophistry. Harry Truman called him “an over-educated Oxford S.O.B.,” while Johnson would later quip that Fulbright was an egghead who was “unable to park his bicycle straight.”) But he was a smart, conscientious legislator whose mastery of foreign policy was nearly unparalleled in the Capitol. And for all intents and purposes, he got along and went along fine with Johnson.

Though Fulbright was an early skeptic of the Kennedy administration’s policies in Southeast Asia, and though in late 1963 he counseled Johnson not to escalate America’s presence there, the following August the Foreign Relations chair voted for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized the administration to use “all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the armed forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” (The precipitating event was a suspected North Vietnamese attack on an American gunboat in the Gulf of Tonkin.)

As America’s involvement in Vietnam spiraled—in February 1965 American forces began a massive bombing campaign against North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front targets (later dubbed “Operation Rolling Thunder”), and by the end of the year over 150,000 U.S. troops were stationed in country—Fulbright grew convinced that he had made a mistake. He regarded the conflict as an anti-colonial fight rather than a proxy fight with China and the Soviet Union. More importantly, he was convinced that Johnson was in the wrong, a conviction that grew in January 1966, when the administration ended a Christmas-season halt to the bombings.

On the evening of January 31—just hours after the White House announced a resumption of Rolling Thunder—Fulbright appeared on CBS Evening News, the gold standard of American reportage, to denounce the war as morally unjust and strategically unwise. He then launched weeks of high-profile, televised hearings featuring an all-star lineup of foreign policy and military skeptics of Johnson’s war policy. General James Gavin called for a limitation of ground troops, while George Kennan, the dean of American foreign policy, urged that the government wind down its involvement “as soon as this could be done without inordinate damage to our prestige or stability in the area.”

Adding fuel to the fire, later that year Fulbright published a book, The Arrogance of Power, which functioned as a takedown of U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam. The arrogance to which he referred was America’s, generally, and not LBJ’s, specifically. But by then the breach was irreversible. Johnson had assiduously attempted to woo his former colleague and had been rewarded by public condemnation. Fulbright was a “cry baby,” Johnson complained to his aid even in early 1965, “and I can’t continue to kiss him every morning before breakfast.”

Fulbright would later claim that after he broke publicly with the administration war’s policy, the president “never after that had another private conversation with me.” That recollection wasn’t true. As a wartime president, Johnson could ill-afford to shun the chairman of a committee with considerable oversight powers. Indeed, multiple recordings exist of private phone calls between the two men well into LBJ’s last months in office, including a moving conversation in which Johnson read aloud a dispatch from his son-in-law, Charles Robb, who was then serving in Vietnam. But the relationship had grown icy. In an interview years after the fact, one of Fulbright’s staffers attending a White House reception after his boss broke with LBJ. When he “sought to shake hands” with Johnson, he remembered, the president “looked at me, right through me, and said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I was never invited back.”


Fulbright’s opposition to the war wasn’t what drove him to a breaking point with Johnson. Other members of Congress came to doubt the wisdom of American foreign policy, and it didn’t necessitate a breach. Indeed, LBJ was a fervent pragmatist who valued loyalty but also appreciated political reality. Just as he didn’t cut off his mentor and close friend, Richard Russell, for voting against both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he didn’t cut off Fulbright, who, for all his erudition and moderation, also opposed both signature Great Society measures. Instead, their falling out came when Fulbright shone a bright spotlight on Johnson’s Achilles heel.

Johnson would later rue the day he “left the woman I love—the Great Society—in order to fight that bitch of a war.” It was true. He was never firmly sold on its necessity, but he was convinced that “if I don’t go in now and they show later that I should have, they’ll push … Vietnam up my ass every time.” There was some truth to it. Polling revealed a strong public mandate to stop Communist aggression, everywhere. The foreign policy and Pentagon establishment was almost nearly unanimous in its support of the war. The Republican Party, which had nominated the Cold War hawk Barry Goldwater as its standard bearer 1964, would have relished the chance to paint LBJ as soft on Communism had he de-escalated the war.

Yet the president was boxed in. To admit how deeply the administration had committed itself, LBJ would have to acknowledge the cost of the war, which rose to over $20 billion annually by 1967. Wartime spending was overheating the economy, draining federal resources and threatening Johnson’s ability to fund his Great Society programs. As his Budget Director Charles Schultze later observed, the problem was “for all sorts of reasons, an unwillingness to admit publicly the war was going to cost a lot more.” LBJ feared that if he admitted the full scope of engagement—or if he embraced the advice of both Schultze and Gardner Ackley, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, that the administration raise personal and corporate income taxes to prevent the economy from over-heating—he would box himself into a corner with Congress. “Because obviously the whole game of the Republicans, naturally, would have been, ‘Why the devil should we give you these extra taxes when you won’t tell us how much more the war is going to cost?’”

So Johnson dissembled. It didn’t help matters that liberal congressmen continued to authorize spending on Great Society programs at levels far in excess of what the White House requested or approved. Johnson was in a bind: the war was eating up a growing portion of the federal budget and, along with domestic spending, was accelerating price and wage inflation. He couldn’t satisfy liberal demands for even more domestic spending, but he also couldn’t admit why. The administration had raised “great expectations,” a Democratic congressman admonished. Hugh Carey, a Democrat from New York, lamented that Congress was being “forced to make a choice here between books and bullets.” After all, polling suggested that while wide support still existed for the war effort in Vietnam, fully 72 percent of Americans opposed cuts to domestic programs as a tradeoff for increased military appropriations. In pledging that America could do it all—have guns and butter, fight poverty and Communism, ensure sustained economic growth with low inflation—the president had promised more than he could deliver in war time. James Scheuer, a congressman from New York, attributed liberal frustration to the administration’s “own eloquence and your own creativity in whetting our appetites.”

When he launched his hearings on Vietnam, which subsequently resumed in 1967, it wasn’t just that Fulbright was picking apart Johnson’s war policy. He was exposing the war, its costs and its meaning. That, to Johnson, was unforgivable.


William Fulbright and Bob Corker are not the same person. Though widely admired by his colleagues for his steady demeanor and moral probity, Corker hasn’t shown anywhere near the same independence from his party’s president that Fulbright displayed.

And Donald Trump isn’t Lyndon Johnson. Not yet, and maybe not ever—by any measure of intellect, competency, purpose or achievement. But there is something telling in these dual tales of disharmony between two headstrong presidents and two chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Fulbright surfaced something that Johnson knew to be true but couldn’t bear to acknowledge. Vietnam “wasn’t the war he wanted,” Lady Bird Johnson later said of her husband. “The one he wanted was on poverty and ignorance and disease and that was worth putting your life into.” By making it more difficult for Johnson to deny the depth of America’s commitment in Southeast Asia, Fulbright exposed the devil’s bargain that the president had made.

Corker might also have surfaced something real. Trump regards himself as a born leader—steady of hand, with instincts that confound expertise and wisdom that can’t be learned in books. But his presidency has thus far been gravely unsettling to elected officials, civil society, military officials, and citizens in the United States and well beyond. It has also been unsuccessful, as measured by legislative or moral achievement.

In a rare moment of pique, Corker surfaced that truth. Like Johnson, Trump snapped back.

Teachers union sides with Christie, Trump ally in clash with top Jersey Democrat

TRENTON — Forget about the race to succeed lame duck Chris Christie: There’s a more intriguing electoral battle in New Jersey this fall, and it’s pitting the state’s largest teachers union against its highest-ranking Democratic state official, Senate president Steve Sweeney.

Over the protests of its traditional Democratic allies and some of its own members, the New Jersey Education Association has endorsed Sweeney’s Republican rival, who voted for President Donald Trump and has supported the deeply unpopular Christie, who once said a national teachers union deserved a “punch in the face.”

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After eight years of Christie, polls show former Goldman Sachs executive and ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy on track to capture the governorship, giving Democrats total control of the government. But the Sweeney-NJEA fight — which stems from a six-year old pension reform dispute — shows that in a state where union bosses have long held sway, there could be plenty of divisions.

And the state’s most powerful union is putting Sweeney on notice.

NJEA spokesman Steve Baker says the union’s members “support candidates who share their values and whose records demonstrate that” — Democrat or Republican.

“Our concern is with the people who get elected, not the party that they belong to,” he said.

“This [fight] is bigger than Steve Sweeney,” adds Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “The NJEA is demonstrating: ‘This is what happens if we feel betrayed by you.’”

The bad blood between NJEA and Sweeney dates back to 2011, when the South Jersey Democrat struck a deal with Christie — who brags about being the NJEA’s “Public Enemy No. 1” — to overhaul pension and health benefits for state public employees. The union says the move meant a net loss in workers’ take-home pay.

The rift deepened last year, after Sweeney reneged on a pledge to allow a public referendum on constitutionally guaranteeing that the state regularly contribute to its public employee pension funds.

As the deadline loomed to get the question on the ballot, the NJEA threatened to withhold funding for Democrats, prompting Sweeney to accuse the union of extortion. He even suggested he would ask the U.S. Attorney and New Jersey attorney general to investigate.

The NJEA said it has never been contacted by those offices, but ever since, it’s been waging war on Sweeney. NJEA money has turned what would have been a slam-dunk reelection for Sweeney into a contest that’s shaping up to be the most expensive state legislative race in New Jersey history.

Despite the heavy investment the NJEA is pouring into attack ads against the Senate president, most Trenton observers believe Sweeney will prevail. He has the backing of the state’s most influential Democratic power broker and — as an official for an ironworkers’ union — he enjoys support from a number of labor groups.

And if Sweeney prevails, the union’s reputation as New Jersey’s most politically powerful lobbying group could take a hit. State senators aligned with Sweeney have already warned the NJEA should brace for a chillier reception.

“One of the things that is at stake is, quite honestly, the viability and validity of NJEA as a union,” said Matt Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University.

“This sort of jihad they’re going after Sweeney with and the fact that the heads of the organizations are making [hundreds of thousands of dollars] a year could very well lead to revolt from the ground up,” he continued. “There’s at least the potential for members wondering why their leadership flushed all their money down the toilet and [they] could ask for some systematic changes.”

The NJEA’s PAC, Garden State Forward, raised $1.1 million and spent nearly $521,000 during the first six months of 2017, according to the most recent financial disclosure forms it filed with the IRS. It’s not clear how much of the expenditures went toward the Sweeney race, and expenses racked up since June may not be publicly available until after the election.

But many observers expect that the NJEA, Sweeney and associated super PACs will have poured millions of dollars into the race by the time it’s over.

Some rank-and-file members of NJEA have questioned the logic of the union’s crusade.

“It appears the NJEA is putting a lot of money into getting rid of someone who, when you look at the big picture, has been more supportive of teachers than not supportive,” teacher Gene Lopes told POLITICO. “To be clear, I hate [the pension and health benefits reforms]. I’ve probably said some not so nice things about Sen. Sweeney, but … this to me reeks of people who said ‘I’m not voting for Hillary Clinton no matter what’ and voted for Trump. And we see how that turned out.”

The NJEA’s Baker defended the process the union’s political action committee followed in deciding whom to endorse; he says the endorsement represents the “vast majority” of members.

To be sure, it’s not the first time the NJEA has passed on endorsing Sweeney: It also chose not to support him in two of his five previous Senate races. But withholding an endorsement is one thing; actively running a campaign to defeat Sweeney in his bid for reelection is quite another.

Sweeney’s Republican opponent, Fran Grenier — the chair of the Salem County Republican Party — tells critics who label him as a Christie supporter that he has not been a fan of the governor’s, whose approval rating remains in the teens, for some time.

“I had been in the past, when he was in his first term,” Grenier said this week. But that changed, Grenier said, after the Bridgegate scandal, in which members of Christie’s inner circle were convicted of shutting down lanes to the George Washington Bridge as political retribution against a Democratic mayor who would not endorse Christie in his 2013 reelection bid.

“I haven’t had a favorable rating of Christie for at least the last year or two,” Grenier said.

But critics continue to fault the NJEA for supporting a conservative.

“I could understand, even if I didn’t agree, [if] they had a disagreement with Stephen Sweeney — if they ran somebody against him in the primary — a progressive — or if they did not support anyone in that district,” state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg said.

Weinberg is one of 16 Senate Democrats who last month signed a letter condemning the NJEA for endorsing Grenier. In the following days, local branches of the NJEA rescinded invitations to union-related events that had been sent to some of those senators — or informed them the union would no longer hand out campaign materials on their behalf.

While some Democrats are criticizing the NJEA’s moves, the head of at least one other union is defending the association’s right to decide which politicians it will or won’t support.

Hetty Rosenstein, the New Jersey state director of the Communications Workers of America, said her organization is not endorsing any candidate in the race – but notes the decision might have been different had Sweeney kept his word about posting the pension amendment on the ballot.

“There are long standing hard feelings between many public workers and Steve Sweeney because of previous attacks on collective bargaining and then reneging on the constitutional amendment,” Rosenstein said.

Sweeney, for his part, said that as a union man — he is general vice president of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers — he recognizes the right of labor organizations to decide whom they’ll support. But he called the NJEA’s decisions in this case “bad” ones.

“It’s their money. It’s their members. And it will be their job to explain to their members their rhyme and reason for it,” he said.

Jim Florio, a former Democratic governor of New Jersey who supports Sweeney, suggested public education could be at stake if campaign dollars are diverted from more competitive races in other legislative districts.

“If a pro-education Democrat loses a close race that might have been won, that’s a detriment to people interested in public education,” Florio said.

Another teachers group has decided to support Sweeney.

Donna Chiera, president of the New Jersey chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, cited Sweeney’s efforts to transform Rowan and Rutgers universities, whose faculty AFT-NJ represents, as reasons for the endorsement.

“I am hoping the day after election day, when all the dust settles, we will all go back into a room and put together an agenda and collectively, as labor, work that agenda,” Chiera said.

Baker, the NJEA’s spokesman, dismissed the notion the union has betrayed the labor movement by attacking a union man.

“Steve Sweeney betrayed labor when he became a champion for laws that undermined collective bargaining in New Jersey with his advocacy for Chapter 78,” Baker said, referring to the 2011 law that brought about public employees’ pension and health care reform.

While some predict the potential fallout with lawmakers will hurt the NJEA, particularly if Sweeney wins, others aren’t so sure.

Dworkin, of the Rebovich Institute, notes that the NJEA failed to oust then-Senate president John Lynch in 1991 but remained relevant in state politics. He says the NJEA will weather any fallout if Sweeney wins.

“The NJEA has 200,000 members spread across the state, in every district,” Dworkin said. “So even if you box them out, it’s going to be hard to ignore them forever.”

Trump hands Republicans a new ObamaCare problem

Key Republican members of Congress want to restore the ObamaCare payments, known as cost-sharing reductions (CSRs), that President Trump is ending, fearing the impact his move will have on the individual insurance market and their constituents. But there are obstacles ahead. 

Still, even if Democrats grant concessions, there’s no guarantee a health-care deal can pass Congress. Conservatives warn the payments to insurers are corporate “bailouts,” a message echoed by Trump on Friday.

“The Democrats ObamaCare is imploding. Massive subsidy payments to their pet insurance companies has stopped,” Trump tweeted.

Trump warned Congress during the months-long debate over legislation to repeal and replace ObamaCare that he would let the system implode if lawmakers failed to pass a bill. He made good on his vow this week.

Senate Republicans made clear before leaving Washington for a weeklong Columbus Day recess that they were not fans of simply letting ObamaCare fall apart.

“I’m not for further complicating the lives of Texans just to make a point,” Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynGun proposal picks up GOP support House bill set to reignite debate on warrantless surveillance Republicans jockey for position on immigration MORE (R-Texas) said when asked before the recess about the argument from some Republicans that ObamaCare should be allowed to fail.

Cornyn noted that Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderChildren’s health-care bill faces new obstacles Overnight Health Care: Schumer calls for tying ObamaCare fix to children’s health insurance | Puerto Rico’s water woes worsen | Dems plead for nursing home residents’ right to sue Schumer calls for attaching ObamaCare fix to children’s health insurance MORE (R-Tenn.) was in talks with Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayChildren’s health-care bill faces new obstacles Overnight Health Care: Schumer calls for tying ObamaCare fix to children’s health insurance | Puerto Rico’s water woes worsen | Dems plead for nursing home residents’ right to sue Schumer calls for attaching ObamaCare fix to children’s health insurance MORE (Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, over authorizing insurance market stabilization payments in exchange for market reforms, such as granting states waivers from ObamaCare’s regulatory requirements.

Yet Cornyn also said he wants real concessions from Democrats. Simply giving states more power to waive ObamaCare’s insurance regulations, he said, “seems pretty light.”

A spokesman for Cornyn said Friday that his boss had not yet weighed in on Trump’s decision to end the ObamaCare payments, adding that his previous statement did not necessarily reflect his views of this week’s action.

Congressional Republicans are split on whether they think Congress should act to fund the payments. Some say they want to maintain stability and protect people who are enrolled.

“[Trump] rightfully put the burden where it belongs and that’s in Congress and Congress has to deal with this problem,” Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) told The Hill on Friday. Reed has proposed a bipartisan package in the House to fund the CSR payments, as well as make right-leaning changes like repealing ObamaCare’s medical device tax.   

“If Congress doesn’t get it done, the people who suffer are the people back home,” Reed added.

Other moderate House Republicans, like Reps. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) and Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloLatino advocacy group targets 7 Republicans in push against ObamaCare replacement GOP rep ‘concerned’ about EPA chief’s climate comments Florida lawmaker: Castro’s death lifts ‘psychological burden’ MORE (R-Fla.), who both face tough reelection races, also called Friday for Congress to fund the payments.

The payments reimburse insurers for giving discounts to low-income ObamaCare enrollees. Without the funds, insurers could drop out of the market or spike premiums, causing chaos.

Some Republicans fear that their party will be blamed for chaos in the market. Strategists warn that if health-care premiums spike as a result of Trump ending the insurance payments, candidates will pay a price at the polls in 2018, when the House could be up for grabs. 

“What political party would want to hold a broken health-care system?” said John Weaver, a political strategist who advised Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s 2016 presidential campaign.

“Trump took the health-care system hostage and shot it, so now Republicans are going to own this moving forward. On top of everything else they’re facing in the midterm [election], it’s an unmitigated political disaster,” he added.

Democrats say Trump’s decision will be “devastating” and predict premiums will increase by 20 to 25 percent. 

On the other side of the debate, conservative Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) told The Hill that “heck no,” he doesn’t support Congress funding the payments, which he called “a bailout to insurance companies.”

Jordan said the conservative House Freedom Caucus has not yet discussed the issue in depth, but “my guess is most members are going to have real problems with these CSR payments.”

Meanwhile, Alexander and Murray are in the midst of bipartisan negotiations over a bill to stabilize ObamaCare, which would include funding the CSR payments. In exchange, Alexander is pushing for giving states more flexibility through expanding waivers to innovate and change ObamaCare rules.

Murray said Friday she is “optimistic” about the negotiations and believes a deal could be reached “quickly.”

A sticking point has been how much to expand the waivers for states. Alexander has been calling for more flexibility than Democrats, who worry about maintaining protections like minimum standards for what an insurance plan must cover. Republicans say substantive changes to the waivers are needed, not just speeding up the process for states to be approved for a waiver.

Still, Democrats expressed hope that a deal could be announced as soon as next week. Staff-level discussions have been ongoing.

Sen. Mike RoundsMarion (Mike) Michael RoundsOvernight Regulation: Trump temporarily lifts Jones Act for Puerto Rico | Bill would exempt some banks from Dodd-Frank | Senators unveil driverless car bill House sends FAA extension to Trump’s desk with hurricane tax relief Senate passes FAA extension without flood insurance provision MORE (R-S.D.), who worked for years in the insurance business before starting a second career in politics, said before the recess that Congress couldn’t simply let ObamaCare fail without finding ways to protect people from the fallout.

“When this fails, and it will fail, this is going to impact the lives of real people, and I think we should be doing everything we can to find an alternative so real people don’t get hurt,” he told The Hill.

He doubled down on that position Friday.

“President Trump’s decision to end cost-sharing reduction payments has the potential to impact 17,000 South Dakotans directly and to create turbulence in the individual market. That is why I have been working with a bipartisan group of senators to try to resolve this issue,” he said in a statement.

Rounds has been talking to Alexander, Murray and Sen. Angus KingAngus Stanley KingSenate confirms No. 2 spot at HHS, days after Price resigns Overnight Defense: Mattis offers support for Iran deal | McCain blocks nominees over Afghanistan strategy | Trump, Tillerson spilt raises new questions about N. Korea policy Mattis: Staying in Iran deal is of US national security interest MORE (I-Maine) about a deal to authorize the cost-sharing subsidies in exchange for insurance market reforms.

Trump on Thursday also signed an executive order to allow Americans to purchase insurance across state lines, a reform that conservative policy experts have long espoused.

But Rounds, based on his experience selling insurance, doubts that will work in practice. He says people living in New York City, which has high health-care costs, won’t be able to buy relatively cheap plans from a state with lower costs such as South Dakota because it won’t make economic sense for insurance companies.

Democratic leaders are looking for a vehicle to get any potential deal passed. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) on Friday floated attaching the payments to a coming disaster spending bill or the larger government funding bill, known as an omnibus, in December.

“I think we’re going to have a very good opportunity in the omnibus to get this done in a bipartisan way if we can’t get it done sooner,” Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) told reporters Friday. 

Trump has indicated that he sees the payments as a bargaining chip. 

“I will say that the Democrats should come to me; I would even go to them,” Trump said Friday. “Because I’m only interested in one thing: getting great health care for this country.”