The Democrats’ political angle is transparent: tempt Trump into being the first to propose tax increases to pay for the new spending. This is likely to be a nonstarter with Republicans, for whom “no new taxes” is party dogma. That in turn would doom the spending bill in the Senate, giving the Democrats the ability to say Republicans are the nasty grinches who are keeping us all from eating the goodies. As much as Trump might like new infrastructure spending, that is a political hole he ought not fall into.
Trump can turn the table on the Democrats, however, if he broadens the playing field. Our annual national deficit is expected to eclipse $1 trillion this year. That’s more than 4 percent of annual gross domestic product and is an amazingly high number for a growing economy with record-low unemployment. It’s not sustainable, but reducing it will require both parties to sacrifice some sacred cows.
That’s where the infrastructure proposal can come in. There’s no particular reason infrastructure spending needs to be paid for when so much of the rest of the federal budget isn’t paid for. This gives Trump the opening to play the part he says he was born to play: the dealmaker who transcends old-party politics.
He could tell Democrats that their approach is just the same old D.C. swamp’s preferred approach of playing gotcha politics rather than solving public problems. He could even say that their impeachment sideshow is a perfect example of putting the pursuit of power over the public interest. But, in this approach, he is willing to overlook that as the nation’s president. And so he would call on both parties to participate in a panel dedicated to solving the budget deficit problem.
Trump’s proposal would be a deft way of addressing infrastructure spending needs while avoiding the Democrats’ trap. By putting infrastructure on an equal playing field with the rest of federal spending, he would force Democrats to contemplate cutting programs they value to get the spending they want. And by putting tax increases implicitly on the table, he would force Republicans to contemplate raising taxes to get the spending they want. By pushing both parties to a bargaining table they studiously have avoided for years, he would begin to show Americans that he can be more than a Negative Nelly on Twitter, endlessly berating his enemies. Everybody has to give, but everyone can also get.
The alternatives are not very appealing. Trump can ignore the Democrats’ request, thereby dooming any new infrastructure spending for another year. He can fall into their trap and earn Republican wrath with no prospect of getting the spending he wants. Or he can simply push the poisoned chalice back on the Democrats by saying he wants to borrow all the money for the new spending, forcing them to propose tax increases or embrace a further expansion of the budget deficit. None of these approaches gets the ball moving or the shovels digging.
Trump’s presidency is often referred to as a reality television show. Even the makers of those shows, however, eventually realize they need to change the model, mixing things up so viewers get something new and unexpected. Washingtonians expect Trump to be relentlessly and consistently negative and partisan. The infrastructure bill gives him the opportunity to change the script. The critics might be confused, but I bet the viewers would love it.