The instinct of many Democrats on Capitol Hill right now is to try to do to Donald Trump what Republicans did so effectively to Barack Obama — express outrage at his every utterance, oppose every nomination, filibuster every piece of legislation in the Senate, file lawsuits to stop every regulation and turn every misstep into a scandal. In short, undermine the legitimacy of the Trump presidency.
The risk of that strategy is that, to accomplish anything, the new president will be forced into the arms of the most right-wing elements of the Republican caucuses on Capitol Hill, who have already (falsely) claimed Trump’s victory as nothing less than a mandate to emasculate and privatize government, cut taxes, shred the social safety net, snuff out unions, withdraw from the world and impose their version of Christian values on all Americans.
Republicans have relatively slim majorities in the House and Senate. What that means is that if no Democrats are willing to break ranks with the give-not-an-inch obstructionists in their caucus, Trump will have no choice but to rely solely on Republican votes to pass any legislation. And we know from bitter experience that the Tea Party wing will refuse to support any but the most extreme legislative outcomes, irrespective of the consequences on the country or the party’s long-term political prospects. They see their role as bringing about radical change. Compromise and moderation are not in their political toolkit.
Trump is not a Tea Party Republican. For starters, he doesn’t know or care much about public policy and isn’t likely to take the trouble to learn much. He’s also too ambitious and self-centered to tether himself to any consistent ideological framework. To the degree he does have policy instincts, they are more consistent with those of the pro-business New York Democrat he was than the right-wing avatar he pretended to be during the campaign. Most importantly, he has an insatiable need to be liked and respected.
For Democrats, there is good and bad news in all of that.
The bad news is that, for at least the first year or so — when he will be anxious to demonstrate his mastery of Washington — Trump will have to turn to conservative think tanks, industry lobbyists and the Republican majorities in Congress as the source of concrete policy proposals, the same party establishment that shunned him until it didn’t.
The good news is that, given the relentless pressure from the Republican right wing and natural piggishness of industry lobbyists, this establishment won’t be able to resist the temptation to overreach and try to ram through policies that are far to the right of what the public will accept. That will offer an opening to Democrats who are willing to work with Trump to fashion more moderate and politically acceptable alternatives.
Don’t be fooled by Trump’s cabinet appointments. To the key positions — Treasury, State, Defense, chief of staff — he has appointed practical military leaders and business people like himself. The more radical and ideologically driven nominees for Health and Human Services, Education, Labor, Justice and the EPA were made to reassure the Republican right that he really is one of them. We shouldn’t underestimate the damage that these appointees will do over the next four years in dismantling the Obama legacy. But on the issues that rise to presidential attention — immigration, trade, taxes, infrastructure spending — Trump will opt for political expediency over ideological zealotry.
You can expect Republicans in the House to continue to ignore and stiff arm Democrats to produce legislation dictated by the hard-line conservatives. Nothing new there.
Where the interesting action will occur is in the Senate, where Republicans have only a two-seat majority and 60 votes may still be needed to pass most legislation. It is there that the Dealmaker-in-Chief will find it possible to craft compromises with practical moderates from both parties. The key question is whether those moderates — in particular, the Democrats — will feel free to engage in such discussions.
It was the whip of party discipline on both sides that doomed compromise on most issues during the Obama years — discipline enforced by not only threats of primary challenges and loss of political funds but also by social ostracization in the clubby Senate environment. Unless Trump is able to break that discipline, he will confront the same political gridlock that stymied Obama.
Even if Trump manages to get a compromise through the Senate, of course, acquiescence by the House won’t come easily — and in any case won’t come without some Democratic votes to make up for those withheld by the Republican hard-liners.
For any Democrat, these compromises won’t be easy to swallow. Because of the reality of Republican control of all branches of government, they will involve giving in on things that will make the liberal base howl, but are necessary to protect other things that are even more important. The reason for compromise is simple and compelling but hardly satisfying: The outcome would be better for the country and better for Democratic constituencies, than if Trump were forced to rely on the support of Republican hard-liners.
And make no mistake: Trump’s top priority is to demonstrate that he can make good on his promise to cut through the gridlock and get things done. He’s shown himself to be fully capable of backing off from his most extreme positions if that is what is required to be able to declare victory, and he responds positively when flattered and respected. But if stymied and vilified by opponents, he’ll revert to the authoritarian bully he’s capable of becoming, doing whatever it takes to be able to claim success, including trampling on democratic and legal institutions.
There will be plenty of Democrats who will resist Trump at every turn and refuse to have any part in dealmaking. The question is whether those die-hards will also insist on threatening and punishing colleagues who break ranks and settle for half a loaf in order to live to fight another day. How that dynamic plays out, rather than the outrage over Donald Trump’s latest tweets, will be the most interesting and important story of the next two years.
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