Having struggled mightily to get things done in Congress, Donald Trump did something new on Wednesday — direct talks with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. Lo and behold, a deal emerged. And pretty quickly, too.
It was not a deal that Republican congressional leaders were especially happy about, according to post-meeting whining to the press. But it was also not a deal those leaders were willing to scuttle. And, indeed, for all the off-the-record impotent rage of congressional Republicans, it’s not exactly clear what it is they think Trump should have held out for. A long-term debt ceiling extension that their own rank-and-file members wouldn't vote for? Staging a government shutdown over a border wall in the middle of a series of crippling hurricanes? Why?
The fact is that relying on Republican congressional leaders to be the animating force of his administration hasn’t worked out for Trump. For starters, given the Senate’s filibuster rule, unified control of the government with 52 senate seats isn’t quite as impressive as it sounds. But more fundamentally, neither alleged master tactician Mitch McConnell nor alleged policy wonk Paul Ryan are nearly as impressive as some of their press hype suggests. The Obamacare repeal fiasco shows they can’t really hash out workable legislation, and the repeated debt ceiling follies show they can’t reliably deliver votes.
Congressional Democrats have a very limited amount of leverage in Washington, but they are disciplined enough to wield it and also pragmatic enough to cut deals. And when the deals are cut, enough congressional Republicans will come along to pass bills. That’s how Trump should have approached health care, it’s how he ought to approach tax reform, and if he’s smart he’ll deploy that strategy more broadly and start to finally have a real legislative agenda.
The fundamentals of deals with Democrats are good
Last November, Donald Trump carried nine states — West Virginia, North Dakota, Montana, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania — that are collectively represented by 10 Democratic senators. Some of those senators are very liberal and some feel pretty secure in their seats, but plenty of them are extremely vulnerable and have solid records of moderation.
It’s a big group of people, in other words, who all else being equal would probably like to vote for some big bipartisan compromises and get their photos taken with Trump.
Schumer, meanwhile, though well-respected by his Democratic colleagues, is also a brand-new leader who has a limited ability to discipline them. And as Matt Grossman and David Hopkins have shown, the parties are asymmetrical with Republicans generally more focused on big symbolic or ideological questions and Democrats more interested in transactional group interests. All of which is to say that Democrats broadly would probably like to cut some deals with Trump, if he actually wanted to do some deals. But mostly he hasn’t been trying. The deal this week could turn that around.
Trump hasn’t tried working with Democrats
There’s nothing especially surprisingly about partisanship playing a big role in politics in the year 2017. But Trump has never seemed particularly invested in conservative movement ideology. He has certainly never seemed like someone driven by personal admiration of or loyalty to Republican Party establishment figures.
Under the circumstances, he’s done bafflingly little in the way of good-faith effort at cross-party dealmaking.
Instead, a typical Trump approach was to fly to Missouri on August 30 for a tax reform speech that included no tax policy details but instead a vicious dig at Sen. Claire McCaskill for obstructing his agenda. She probably will oppose whatever tax legislation Trump ends up getting behind, and she really is vulnerable to defeat in November 2018.
But one big reason it seems likely that McCaskill will oppose whatever Trump does on taxes is that Trump hasn’t done anything to try to win her vote. Rather than get Democrats around the table to see if he and they have any compatible priorities, Trump has outsourced tax work to a small group of congressional Republican leaders who are simply negotiating amongst themselves.
That’s fine for conservative ideologues like Ryan who want to pursue a maximalist agenda. It’s also fine for cynical partisans like McConnell who probably want Democrats to oppose everything Trump does so it’s easier to win their Senate seats.
But does Trump really want to deliver a dose of Ryan’s ideology so McConnell can claim some scalps, or does he want to be a successful and popular president?
Go forth and make deals
Donald Trump promised to build a border wall and is struggling to get Congress to put up any money for it. Trump also promised to invest $1 trillion in American infrastructure. Democrats like that idea and wrote an outline of a plan to spend $1 trillion on American infrastructure. A sensible version of the Trump administration would observe that the giant infrastructure investment idea is popular, that congressional Democrats are enthusiastic about it, and that a wall is arguably a form of infrastructure. Maybe we spend the trillion and some of it goes to a wall?
Instead, Trump immediately abandoned his infrastructure promises and instead made his top legislative priority a health care bill that broke of all his campaign promises on health care. And his administration has come up with a joke of an infrastructure plan, in which states are supposed to spend 80 percent of the money and they just call it a “$1 trillion investment” even though the actual investment is only a fraction of that.
And the question is: Why be this way? Why not cut deals with Democrats, jam the GOP establishment up, and let them whinge to their reporter friends about it?
It’s not, after all, like cutting deals with Democrats on legislation means that Trump will suddenly be a liberal or conservatives will have no reason to support him. Obviously Trump and Democrats will continue to disagree about immigration and gun control. And he’ll continue to appoint business-friendly deregulators to every job under the sun. He’ll keep putting conservative judges on the bench. And he’ll keep, in his various creative ways, advancing the white identity politics that won him the election. These were the big right-wing promises that were the foundation of his mastery of the Republican Party.
But on the other stuff, why not do the things he said he was going to do? Cut a deal with Democrats on infrastructure. Cut a deal with Democrats to reform the tax code without making a huge giveaway to the rich. Cut a deal with Democrats to lower premiums and deductibles, thus addressing actual people’s actual gripes with Obamacare.
It would work. It would be popular. It would be a legislative legacy. And while it would make Ryan and McConnell angry, they’d no more be in a position to stop it than they were in a position to stop Trump and Schumer from making a deal on the debt ceiling.
If Trump wants a productive presidency, he’ll make deals with the people capable of making deals — congressional Democrats.