As he ran for president, Donald Trump offered himself as a different type of candidate: a non-politician who could appeal to people from both parties who wanted to see change in Washington. That argument was undercut severely and repeatedly by Trump’s embrace and advocacy of positions that catered to his core conservative base. Only 6 percent of his votes came from Democrats, according to exit polls; 5 percent of Hillary Clinton’s came from Republicans.
Still, Trump’s personally fluid politics — he was a Republican, then an independent, then a Democrat, then a Republican, then an independent, and then a Republican again — and lack of anchored policy positions meant that there was always some concern that he might not be a reliable defender of Republican policies once he got to the White House. On Wednesday, those fears were apparently confirmed, as Trump suddenly and unexpectedly sided with Democratic leaders on how to address the extension of the federal debt ceiling. Later that day, he appeared at a rally next to Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), who’s up for reelection next year. Trump called her a “good woman.”
Part of this, certainly, was an attempt to stick his thumb in the eye of Republican leaders in Congress after their joint inability to get anything significant done on the legislative front. But it’s worth wondering if part of it, too, is Trump thinking that perhaps he can at last become the appealing-to-many-sides politician that he once promised to be. If his approval numbers are terrible and Republicans in Congress aren’t getting things done, why not start working with the Democrats? Sure, he spent months dismissing the party as “obstructionists” and mocking Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), but, again, Trump’s political thinking isn’t defined by consistency.
If that’s his plan, though, it’s a non-starter. Why? Because of this.
By now you’re well aware that Trump’s approval ratings among Democrats are terrible. But there’s nuance in those graphs. Notice that the percentage of Republicans indicating that they strongly approve of Trump has faded over time, while the percentage of Democrats who strongly disapprove has stayed pretty solid. Nine in 10 Democrats disapprove of Trump; three-quarters disapprove strongly. That’s barely budged.
What’s more, Democrats dislike Trump far more than Republicans like him.
The way such ratings tend to work is that support fades rather than flips. As the number of Republicans who strongly approve has dropped, the number that somewhat approves has increased. Those Republicans could continue to move one way or the other — strengthen or weaken. In this partisan moment, Trump embracing Democrats isn’t likely to earn the approval of those wavering Republicans.
Nor is it likely to earn the approval of many Democrats. Trump is seen by many Democrats as irretrievably toxic — beyond just being a Republican. He’s seen as dishonest, erratic — even racist. Schumer and Democratic leaders can make a deal with Trump on the debt ceiling as they did this week in part because they were generally perceived as having won a negotiation with Trump rather than allying with him. (Also, in part, because most Americans don’t really care that much about the machinations over the hard-to-parse debt ceiling.) Heitkamp can embrace Trump in North Dakota, which voted for him by a wide margin.
But for a lot of Democrats, there’s no upside to seeming to align with Trump on anything in any way. Even if Trump wanted to work with the Democrats, the well is so poisoned that it’s hard to see how he could without disavowing most of his first seven months in office. And even then: Who would trust him?
A poll from Monmouth University last month made clear that most Americans don’t plan to rethink their opinions of Trump.
There is one way in which this strategy might work for him. If Trump hopes to improve his standing with the public, he either has to do something to get Democrats to soften their views of him — unlikely over the short term — or he needs to reverse the trend with those independent voters. Those approval numbers suggest that they were never thrilled by his presidency, but over time they’ve soured even further. Perhaps reaching out to Democrats will signal to independents that, as he liked to hint last year, he’s really one of them.
Perhaps. Or perhaps the deal with the Democrats on Wednesday was a one-off without an eye toward a new approach to Congress, and the course that’s been set over the past seven months will proceed apace.
If you’re headed to Vegas this weekend, that’s probably the bet I’d recommend.