Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes is exactly the kind of Democrat whom you would expect to lend bipartisan support to President Donald Trump's $1 trillion infrastructure proposal. The chair of the "pro-growth" New Democrat Coalition on the party's right flank, Himes said he's been thrilled for months by Trump’s promise of a major infrastructure bill — even if it relies more on private investment than some progressives would like.
"We get really excited about the idea he keeps reverting to — a very major investment in infrastructure in a way the brings the economy into the 21st century. It's really critical," Himes said in an interview on Friday.
But he now says it's becoming increasingly difficult to imagine either he or the moderate “New Dems” could back the infrastructure package — not because of anything new Trump has said about infrastructure itself, but because of the president's controversial decisions in unrelated areas, like his executive order on immigration.
"You can work with a quirky, untrained, market-oriented president," Himes said. "You can't work with a president who is eroding the Constitution. The real problem is if we have a lot more weeks that shock Americans, it's going to close the window for having those technocratic discussions we should be having."
Himes said he's not at the point where he's declaring himself unwilling to back anything Trump puts forward. But he's getting there.
Himes and I spoke in his office in the Longworth House Office Building on Friday. A transcript of our interview, edited only for length and clarity, follows.
Donald Trump is losing potential allies in the Democratic Party’s “pro-growth” wing
There's been some bipartisan support for the theoretical idea of bolstering American infrastructure. Of what Trump has proposed, is there something you could see your coalition signing on to?
For the New Democrats, a lot of what Trump says and does is appalling to us — the immigration order, the ill-considered early morning tweets.
But we get really excited about the idea he keeps reverting to — a very major investment in infrastructure in a way that brings the economy into the 21st century. It's really critical.
We have, of course, some concerns with what he's proposed — he has a very tax credit–heavy proposal. But this whole government is set up to negotiate those kinds of things — and we're excited by the prospect that there could be those kinds of negotiations.
If Trump's infrastructure plan relies primarily on PPPs [public-private partnerships] and tax credits, do you think that's something the New Democrats would get behind? A lot of progressives have opposed the idea that private corporations would be paid and then get to maintain what is ostensibly public infrastructure. [In a public-private partnership, private firms often get to bid for a road project and then recoup its costs by controlling the tolls.]
The reality is that these PPPs ... for certain things and in certain areas, they can really make progress. There's toll roads all over the country, but they're not the whole story. You're not building a toll road in a rural area with a public-private partnership. So the answer is not, "Your way is totally wrong”; it's, "There are limitations to your way, and we need to find ways to fill those limitations."
My understanding is that one of the main problem with PPPs is that they wouldn't address the biggest problem in America's infrastructure — which is replacing existing roads and bridges. PPPs are better suited for new infrastructure, which isn't what experts see as the critical need.
The only main difference between a PPP project and a public one is that you pay for one with tolls and you pay for the other, generally, with a gasoline tax. There's no magic solution out there where nobody pays for it — someone's going to pay for it. And that's something we should talk about.
Again, PPPs will work in certain areas. A lot of people in this area will use the Dulles tolls to get to Dulles. They don't necessarily work in other areas. If Republicans say, "We have this magical plan to fix all of American infrastructure with PPPs," then we'll be a little skeptical about that. But at least we're having that conversation.
If Trump comes up with a Muslim registry, we're not having that conversation.
Do you anticipate that being a potential fissure point with other Democrats? How does the New Democrat thinking about infrastructure differ from other members of the party?
Infrastructure doesn't really lend itself to battle flags, so the challenge will be that the more Trump does that's so offensive — not just to Democrats, but I think a lot of Republicans saying, "What? Green card holders can't be reunited with their families?" — he could do enough stuff that would put the ability of Democrats and maybe even some Republicans to work with him into question.
You can work with a quirky, untrained, market-oriented president. You can't work with a president who is eroding the Constitution. The real problem is if we have a lot more weeks that shock Americans, it's going to close the window for having those technocratic discussions we should be having.
So you're saying the outrageousness that keeps coming down the pipelines will make unrelated negotiations more difficult? And it doesn't sound like you're quite there, but the idea is if the Muslim ban and things like it continue, the willingness of New Democrats to work on infrastructure would be weakened.
Where do you draw that line in the sand — to say that we like this thing, but you're going to have to reverse all these other things first before we can work with you on any of it?
There's two levels of things going on here. Donald Trump could offend so much of our values — and I'm not talking Democratic values; I'm talking about American values — such that just as a matter of morality, it would be very hard to work with the guy. He's making some progress between the immigration thing, not mentioning Jews in the context of the Holocaust, doing all he can to destroy the press.
He could also alienate so many people that it would be politically hard — and there are elements of the Democratic Party who are already there, and we see Uber and business leaders back[ing] away from this guy — that as a political matter, it would be hard to work with him.
Did you anticipate yourself getting to this point so quickly? One month ago, did you imagine you'd already be telling a reporter you may be becoming unwilling to work with the president?
Well, to be clear, we're not at that point just yet. But he really is putting a lot of people in a very difficult position already.
But you do ask a good question. Last week, I offered the optimistic vision that there's a method to his madness — that maybe what he's doing is that he's making all the anti-immigration people happy with his order, and the reason he's doing that is so he can piss them off with an infrastructure package or whatever it might be.
I'm a little less — I think that's a little less credible, less possible, scenario now. I think he's done some real damage — I'm not going to say it's dead — but he's done some real damage to that shrinking space for collaboration.
You could have envisioned a story instead in which Trump gets elected, he has this ambiguous ideological heterogeneity that people aren't sure what he stands for, and if he came out by saying, “Let's start with a massive infrastructure bill,” Democrats are happy about that and maybe he could have been a big bipartisan political win.
It was a real shame he didn't. If he'd gone that route and said, "Election is over, now we're going to be in a different America" — my God, we'd be in a different place than we are today.