When it comes to political malpractice, failing on repeal-and-replace is not Exhibit A. For weeks there has been a more obvious question for Stephen K. Bannon and President Trump: Why are they driving Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer into the arms of the implacable opposition?
Wouldn’t the smart play be to coerce, or induce, or at least leave a tiny bit of room for Schumer (D-N.Y.) to cooperate? Wouldn’t the natural first move for Trump have been to assemble, from both parties, a populist majority in Congress?
Last week two of my Post colleagues, conservative commentators Marc Thiessen and Ed Rogers, argued that Schumer is sinking his party’s 2018 prospects by joining the irreconcilable resistance instead of working with the president where possible. By leading a filibuster against Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch, voting even against Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao (wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell [R-Ky.]) and generally refusing to play ball, Schumer is showing that he didn’t get the 2016 message from middle America, they opined.
Thiessen and Rogers may be right that uncompromising resistance will not help Democrats win independent voters in 2018.
But their analysis overlooks two points: Trump’s behavior from Inauguration Day on left Schumer no choice. More important, what’s bad for Democrats isn’t necessarily optimal for Trump — especially if his and Bannon’s goal was to blow up both parties and forge a new working-class, nationalist majority that can carry Trump to triumphant reelection in 2020.
To be clear: I think that’s the wrong goal for our country. But if Trump had begun his administration by seeking a bipartisan infrastructure bill, Schumer would have had no choice but to cooperate, and might well have welcomed the chance. Half the unions that normally support Democrats would have been on Trump’s side and pressing both parties to get on board.
Instead, Trump opened his presidency with a dark and one-sided address that gave no credit to his predecessor and opened no doors to cooperation. He followed that address with bizarre misstatements about crowd size and tweets mocking the protesters who marched in vast numbers the next day. “Why didn’t these people vote?” Trump taunted.
“These people” were Schumer’s base. Only days into the administration, thousands of liberals were demonstrating outside the Brooklyn apartment building where the senator lives. “Grow a spine, Chuck!” they demanded. “Filibuster everything!”
Even then, you might have made a case that for the good of his party, and the country, Schumer should stand up to his left wing. But he would have had to make common cause with a president who was belittling him as “head clown” and “Fake Tears Chuck Schumer.”
Even more difficult, he would have had to make cause with a president who selected as his first objective the erasure of President Barack Obama’s principal accomplishment. No Democratic leader could be in any way accomplice to that goal and expect to survive. No Democratic leader would want to.
Imagine if Trump instead had told House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) that repeal-and-replace, and even tax cuts, had to wait. Imagine if Bannon had insisted that Congress first take up his trillion-dollar infrastructure plan.
There would have been some grousing from deficit hawks. But we’ve seen often enough that the one place Democrats and Republicans can find common ground is on measures that worsen the deficit.
There would have been disagreements, too, on the structure of the plan — how to pay for at least some of it, how to balance spending on roads with spending on mass transit, how radically to gut environmental protections on behalf of speed of execution.
But the pressure on Democrats to cut a deal would have been enormous. Would it have split the party? All the better, from Trump’s point of view. And if it split the Republicans, too, wouldn’t that have advanced the grand Bannon plan for world domination?
Which leads to an interesting question: Why didn’t Trump start with infrastructure and cooperation?
One possibility is that he didn’t because he couldn’t, temperamentally. He couldn’t control his jeers and insults, and Bannon couldn’t control them either, so before the administration could even choose its first priority, the decision was essentially made for it: Democrats had been alienated and Trump had to start with initiatives that he thought could pass with only Republican support. The simultaneously gathering cloud regarding Russia only made it more certain that no Democrats could be seen advancing a Trump initiative.
Another possibility is that the more conventional Republicans inside the administration — Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Vice President Pence — argued for more conventional Republican goals and won.
Whatever the case, Trump missed an opportunity to reshape politics that may not present itself again.