Over the past forty years, Donald Trump has styled himself as many men: master builder and magic marketer, inconvenient truth-teller, savvy gamer of the system, politically incorrect provocateur. But no role has been more central to his identity than that of peerless deal-maker – until the first frustrating months of his presidency smudged the luster off that gilded brand.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that Trump has in the last week sought to strike deals where he can find them – with Democrats – even if many of his aides, supporters and Republicans in Congress think that means he’s looking for love in all the wrong places. In fact, Trump’s recent outreach to Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi is more readily explainable in terms of the president’s ego and psyche than it is in terms of any considered political or legislative strategy.
“I think he feels he got burned so bad in the first seven months by the Republican leadership and their inability to do anything that if he wants to get accomplishments on infrastructure or taxes or DACA, that the only way to do it is to work with the leaders of the Democratic Party,” said former Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman and Transportation Secretary under President Barack Obama, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that has let young illegal immigrants avoid deportation. “The first seven months were just simply a joke.”
It remains to be seen whether Trump’s agreement with Democratic congressional leaders to raise the debt ceiling – and a more tentative plan to preserve the DACA program while increasing border security – is the beginning of a new period of accomplishment or merely the latest predictably unpredictable act of a presidency that has been defined by the same. But at a stroke, the president seized control of the Beltway narrative, upended conventional wisdom about his intentions and perhaps his abilities, and has seemed to relish the feeling.
“It’s always risking imputing strategy or a change in interest in policy with Trump,” said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of the new book, “One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate and the Not-Yet Deported.” “My guess is that he didn’t like the vibes about a first year empty of accomplishments and decided Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell had led him astray. So he’s rolling the dice, making nice with Chuck and Nancy, hoping to bag a deal or two, shake things up, change the media narrative, get attention away from the Russia investigation. But he hasn’t thought anything through to the next steps. He’s improvising as he goes, relying on his gut, looking for emotionally satisfying cable news coverage.”
The reaction from some of Trump’s most ardent allies was swift and unrelentingly negative. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), perhaps the hardest immigration hard-liner in Congress, tweeted that the president’s base would be “blown up, destroyed, irreparable and disillusioned beyond repair” if his tentative framework for immigration deal held. But it is far from clear just where Trump’s base would go, since many of them flocked to him in the first place because they believed the lineup of conventional politicians in both parties left them no other option.
Trump’s latest actions may also have the effect of shielding the dwindling ranks of moderate Republicans – and even some party leaders — who agree with him on preserving the “Dreamers” immigration program for illegal residents brought here as children, but don’t want to be seen as taking a position that might alienate their constituents or most conservative colleagues. Even before Trump’s dinner with Pelosi and Schumer, some congressional conservatives had acknowledged they could envision the shape of a possible deal, depending on how far Democrats went to toughen border enforcement. The speed with which Speaker Paul Ryan insisted there was no “agreement” on immigration actually seemed proof enough of how far the president had already moved the ball.
And taking incoming fire from his right flank may be far from the worst thing for Trump’s political fortunes, considering that polls show about two thirds of voters think he is doing more to divide the country than to unite it. When Bill Clinton signed a Republican-drafted bill to overhaul welfare in 1996, his fellow Democrat, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, warned that it would be “the most brutal act of social policy since Reconstruction.” That turned out not to be true, Clinton’s poll numbers rose, and he coasted to re-election against Bob Dole that fall.
But there’s a big difference between Trump’s position today and Clinton’s 20 years ago: Clinton was forced to bargain because the Democrats had lost control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years, and his presidency was on the ropes. Trump’s party now has majorities in both the House and Senate – albeit somewhat fragile majorities that Trump’s congressional allies believe that his uneven performance and his latest actions could well put at risk. And unlike Trump’s dinner table diplomacy with the Democrats, conducted over the objections of some of his most senior aides, and with the exclusion of the GOP congressional leadership, Clinton’s compromises on welfare and balancing the budget were strongly backed by his politically ambidextrous chief strategist, Dick Morris. “I signed that bill because I trusted you,” Clinton told Morris in the face of incoming liberal flak.
But like Trump, Clinton was a deal-maker at heart, and he couldn’t resist the temptation to put some runs on the board, whatever the remonstrance of liberals in his own party. “Clinton and Newt Gingrich came to Washington to get stuff done, and even though they didn’t like one another, they knew their job was to get things done,” LaHood recalled. “Welfare, the balanced budget, tax reform – you name it, they got it done. That seems to be the chemistry with Trump at the moment.”
It’s far from unheard of for presidents to buck the congressional wings of their own parties to make a deal with the opposition on their own priorities. Lyndon Johnson ran roughshod over segregationist southern Democrats – and dismissed the worried pleas of some northern liberals – to make common cause with Midwestern Republicans on civil rights. Senator Everett Dirksen, the GOP leader of that era, often remarked that his only unshakable principle was flexibility – a maxim that Trump indisputably shares – and his son-in-law Howard Baker once said that “every idea he held, he held tentatively.”
It is true that radical changes in demographics and party structure have made such across-the-aisle alliances much less likely – indeed, often impossible – today. But it seems equally possible that Trump actually likes Schumer, his fellow New Yorker, and has a grudging respect for Pelosi’s partisan street-fighter’s skills.
Whether the spirit of comity struck up over beef medallions at the White House will produce meaningful legislation is another question, of course. For now, there are plenty of skeptics.
“I think we can expect more abrupt changes, attacks on allies, and flirtations with adversaries but with little constructive follow-up,” said Brookings’s Mann. “This dude is in the wrong job, and it’s not as much fun as he thought it would be.”