Presidents often work with members of the other party after locking in votes from their own party in Congress. But Trump went straight to the other party, bypassing and alienating Republicans eager to shut out the Democrats. That makes his overtures unlike most other cross-partisan alliances in American history, and raises doubts about whether he can succeed. When past presidents have tried something similar, it has cost them needed party support — and failed to build viable relationships across the aisle.
Three strategies of cross-partisanship
Divided government: Unlike Trump, some presidents face a Congress controlled by the other party and need their support to address contemporary problems. Democrat Harry Truman needed votes from the Republican majority to pass the Marshall Plan to revive a war-torn Europe. Republican Dwight Eisenhower needed the Democratic majority to build the modern interstate highway system. Some historians even believe that the U.S. could have joined the League of Nations, a precursor to the United Nations, had Democrat Woodrow Wilson been more willing to work constructively with the Senate’s GOP majority.
Divided ideologies: Other presidents reach out to the other party because they hold a principled policy commitment closer to the opposition party’s view than their own party’s stance. But we need to look back to the 19th century to find such presidents.
For instance, John Tyler (1841-1845) and Andrew Johnson (1865-1869) were vice presidents who became president despite being only nominally members of their formal parties. Both vetoed legislation in line with their party’s long-standing policy commitments on states’ rights and nationalism. They paid a price in political impotence, however, and provoked the country’s first impeachment procedures.
Public approval: Still other presidents side with the other party to maintain public approval. For example, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, facing resilient opposition parties in control of Congress, signed legislation in line with the opposition’s views. Both presidents seem to have believed it would bolster their chances of reelection. Nixon signed into law environmental and social welfare measures, while Clinton supported welfare reform and — joined by most congressional Democrats — the Defense of Marriage Act. Stephen Skowronek calls this the “politics of preemption,” passing the other party’s popular ideas to deprive it of a campaign issue.
So why is Trump working with Democrats?
Trump doesn’t face a Democratic Congress. Nor do any principled policy commitments drive him to the Democrats. Instead, he says that voters elected him to break through congressional inaction. Doubtless, Trump might worry that deporting DACA recipients could sink his already low approval ratings. But some GOP members have their doubts: Freedom Caucus member David Brat said Trump is working with Democrats because he “got rolled on Obamacare,” while his legislative affairs director called Republican support unreliable.
Trump probably cannot repeat Nixon and Clinton’s overtures to the opposition and achieve the same results. Both were president in less polarized times, when working with the other side was less taboo. Even when their fellow partisans grumbled, they believed that supporting their president was the only way to prevent the opposition in Congress from passing even worse policies. Their parties held together, facing no credible primary threats from challengers who thought they could do better.
Trump’s politics more closely resemble the presidency of Jimmy Carter, who supported deregulation and tight monetary policy against the wishes of liberals in his own majority party. But Carter’s deregulatory push failed to soften Republican criticism of Carter and helped sparked a liberal electoral challenge from Ted Kennedy in 1980, which left him weakened in the general election against Ronald Reagan.
Like Democrats in Carter’s time, today’s Republicans generally oppose Trump’s move to work with Democrats. As House Speaker Paul D. Ryan put it, voters delivered a mandate for “unified Republican government.” Trump’s candidacy created expectations for conservative policy victories including building a wall, repealing Obamacare, and reforming the tax code.
Gridlock has not yet convinced Republicans that cross-partisan alliances are necessary. Congressional Republican leaders and conservative interest groups were quick to lump Trump with the swamp he promised to drain.
Nor have Trump’s cross-party overtures reversed his low approval ratings. In the month since Trump’s debt ceiling deal with the Democrats, his approval ratings among Democrats and independents barely moved, and Democratic leaders are furious with Trump’s recent attempt to link any DACA program to investment in his promised wall along the border with Mexico.
Rank-and-file Republicans largely remain steadfast in their approval of Trump. But if Trump continues to be an unpredictable commodity, he could alienate conservative activists and congressional Republicans, and he may have no choice but to work with Democrats.
If working with Democrats is a necessity, Democrats will have greater negotiating power, and could push him to abandon his campaign pledges. That may hurt him in any reelection bid, as happened to George H.W. Bush in 1992; after Bush reneged on his “No new taxes” pledge in a deal brokered with Democrats, they then used the broken pledge to run against him. Trump has the Republican majority that Bush might have wanted, but has not invested in unifying his fractured party.
Trump’s vitriolic style and historically low approval suggest that he will be less effective at garnering broad-based support than other presidents caught in similar dilemmas. Given our era’s extreme polarization, a bipartisan debt ceiling increase or even an infrastructure bill is unlikely to repair relations with Democrats in proportion to the support he could lose from Republicans.
Christopher Baylor is an American Political Science Association congressional Fellow and author of First to the Party: The Group Origins of Political Transformation (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).