Observers of U.S. politics are aflutter over President Donald Trump’s overtures to the Democratic Party. After striking two deals in as many weeks with the opposition, there is talk of the realization of the promise of the Trump candidacy. Supporters assert that the president is stepping out of the straitjacket of party politics and governing as a real independent. That is an oversimplification, but these developments raise important questions, not just for Trump supporters but for Democrats who would do a deal with him.
The “new” Trump first emerged two weeks ago at a meeting with Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, heads of the Democratic Party in their respective chambers. Then, the president overruled his treasury secretary and ignored Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. Paul Ryan, heads of the GOP in their chambers — and the men who ostensibly run them — and agreed to a short-term, three-month debt ceiling increase as the Democrats suggested. (Republicans sought a longer extension to eliminate that issue as a point of contention; a three-month deal merely postpones a final reckoning and preserves Democratic leverage in the process.)
The agreement secured Democratic support for legislation to help victims of Hurricane Harvey. Trump praised the Democratic deal-makers and then gave Heidi Heitkamp, a Democratic senator from North Dakota, a boost during an appearance in her state to talk up tax reform, calling her “a good woman.” That praise makes no sense to Republicans who consider Heitkamp a vulnerable Democrat when the GOP and Trump need every possible seat in the Senate.
The third blow came last week when Trump reportedly again agreed with Schumer and Pelosi to strike a deal to protect the “Dreamers,” or 800,000 immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children. After declaring that “they have to go” and directing his Justice Department to end the Obama-era policy that allowed them to stay, Trump’s reversal infuriated the Republican Party and his base.
For some of his supporters, these moves are the realization of Trump’s pledge to “disrupt” politics as usual and work on behalf of “forgotten” Americans. After his latest deal with the Democrats, Trump warned, “If the Republicans don’t stick together then I’m going to have to do more and more” with the opposition — in theory, a strategy designed to free Trump from party orthodoxy and allow him to strike the best deal in every situation.
That analysis is too generous. Trump and Schumer are longtime friends, a New York City politician and a city real estate developer who for many years registered as a Democrat. The two men understand each other and have had a working relationship. The renewal of their friendship has been nudged along by the failure of the GOP establishment to provide Trump the legislative victories he craves.
Trump’s volatility, lack of an ideological core and his hunger for wins — and for approval — make difficult any enduring relationship. The president has already been attacked by establishment Republicans and his base, both of whom see Trump’s flirtation with the Democrats as a betrayal.
Democrats too have been taking heat for their readiness to work with Trump. Loyalists fear that their concerns could become bargaining chips for a party leadership eager to win a seat at the table. Democrats parry those complaints by noting that they have not had to compromise. As Pelosi explained, “Anytime a president wants to accept our proposal, we’re going to do that.”
The Democrats’ conundrum is important, not just for followers of U.S. politics but for any member of the opposition and especially those who work in deeply contested polities. As the minority, the Democratic leadership is right to try to influence outcomes in whatever way that it can, while always keeping an eye on the national interest. If the president proposes legislation that helps all Americans, then it should gain opposition support. That is putting the national interest above partisan interest.
Incredibly that has not been the guiding principle of U.S. politics for some time. Upon Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential election, Sen. McConnell pledged to deny the new president any victories in an effort —ultimately futile — to deny him re-election. Some Democrats believe their party should take the same line, opposing Trump in every endeavor to ensure that he is just a one-term president.
There is another dimension to opposition to Trump, however, one that distinguishes this presidency from that of his predecessor (and every other occupant of the White House). Trump, his detractors argue, is destroying the norms that govern political and social life in the United States. Victories for him threaten not only to lengthen his tenure, but also to undermine those norms. In this mindset, compromise with this president is not a question of pragmatism, but one of more fundamental principles. After eight months of a Trump presidency, it is difficult to dispute that conclusion. Still, there must be hope that victories for centrist policies will encourage the president to move toward the center as well. That would be real victory for the national interest as well.
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