Politics & Policy

Parsing Trump’s Pivot

President Trump meets with Congressional leadership at the White House, September 6, 2017. (Reuters photo: Kevin Lamarque)
His recent cooperation with Democrats could signal a new phase — and many dangers for the president’s MAGA agenda.

President Trump’s deal with congressional Democrats on the debt limit is not especially momentous in itself. Congressional Republicans are annoyed with it in part because they believe that they are losing some of the leverage they would otherwise use to achieve some of their legislative goals by tying those goals to a longer-term lifting of the debt limit. But they have repeatedly overestimated how much leverage the threat of hitting the debt ceiling gives them — even the biggest accomplishment they have made this way, the sequestration deal of 2011, was a very mixed bag. Further, the difference between what Republicans could get in the six-month deal they wanted, compared with the three-month deal they now must take, does not seem likely to be very large.

What would be momentous, however, is if Trump’s deal and his recent conciliatory words about extending an amnesty for illegal immigrants signaled a new phase in his presidency: one in which he seeks to cooperate with congressional Democrats on several issues, instead of on almost none. This shift by Trump might leave congressional Republicans with a choice of accepting deals they dislike, trying to block the president from making these deals, or being left out of governance altogether.

The model for this new phase of the Trump presidency, if that is what we are seeing, would be Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tenure as governor of California. Elected as a celebrity who transcended the political parties, he originally worked with the Republican party. After voters rejected conservative ballot initiatives that he had championed, he moved sharply left. The defeat of Republican legislation to modify Obamacare would be the equivalent event for Trump.

Writing in his newsletter “The Transom,” which I read daily, Ben Domenech argues that this kind of “pivot” by Trump would be in the president’s interests. The congressional Republicans are unpopular, and so is what passes for their agenda, he writes.

There is no mandate for the “Better Way” agenda. There is no mandate for McConnell’s agenda — whatever that is. There is a mandate for something like Trump’s agenda — or big pieces of it. And he’s flexible about which pieces.

Congressional leadership thinks if they and Trump disagree, clearly Trump should give way and follow their lead. But why? He beat them, and they couldn’t beat him. The party didn’t go for any of the other candidates because they wanted him. Yet since his inauguration, congressional Republicans have acted like they have an equal seat at the table. They don’t have that, and they don’t deserve it. And Trump should stop pretending they do.

I think this oversimplifies the Republican coalition considerably. A plurality of it indeed wanted Trump, but other kinds of Republicans usually outran him, and sometimes by a considerable margin, in their own electorates. I tend to think that talk of “mandates” in politics is either fiction or propaganda, and that whether Paul Ryan “deserves” to have a say in Trump’s agenda is the wrong question to ask. The main question to ask is what Trump strategy would be best for the country. But Domenech raises an important, if secondary, question, namely which strategy would be in Trump’s interests.

But that question raises the further questions of whether there is or can be a Trump strategy and, if so, what it might be designed to achieve. Reading Trump’s latest moves — the debt deal and the peace offering on a limited amnesty — as the beginning of a strategy obscures these questions. The principal obstacle to a debt-limit deal had previously, after all, been Trump’s own insistence that any bill to raise the debt limit include funding for a border wall — something that he could more plausibly describe as part of his mandate than any other policy.

Dropping that policy, at least temporarily, and instead effectively embracing a no-strings-attached amnesty for those illegal immigrants who were brought here as minors might boost the president’s popularity. But in no sense have these moves advanced anything that could be reasonably described as a pre-this-week Trump agenda. They constitute more an abandonment of Trump’s own prior agenda than a break with the congressional GOP.

Domenech goes on to suggest some worthwhile deals that Trump could make with the Democrats, such as “DACA for E-Verify.” In my opinion, that would be an excellent deal substantively and would also benefit Trump politically. But that wouldn’t be a break with the congressional GOP: It would represent the fond hope of much of it. And it would require undoing half of this week’s pivot (the let’s-codify-DACA-pronto half), which put any such deal further out of reach by telling Democrats they need not make any concessions to get what they want.

Trump should think long and hard about whether he and the party he heads should hang together, or separately.

It may be, then, that Trump’s recent moves do not reflect any strategy. A deliberate strategy of cutting Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and the rest loose, however, would have a serious disadvantage the White House should consider. If Trump has sometimes mused whether his life would be easier with the other party in charge of Congress, he would not be the first president to do so. But more than most presidents, Trump has a strong incentive to avoid undercutting Republicans — namely, the certainty that a Democratic Congress will have a lower bar for issuing subpoenas, commencing impeachment, and generally raising the legal bills of Trump, his family, and his aides. I suppose it is possible that Trump relishes the drama that would result from that kind of constant constitutional conflict, or he might think it would help him win reelection. But he should think long and hard about whether he and the party he heads should hang together, or separately.


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