I’ve written extensively in recent weeks (for example, here) about a structural political problem that Donald Trump has that is going to prevent him from successfully getting legislation passed through this Congress. A simple formulation of the problem is that Trump ran against the current iteration of the Republican Party but adopted a strategy even before his inauguration that depends on his ability to move his agenda with 100% Republican votes. I don’t want to reiterate that argument here, at least not fully, but it now appears that he and many of the people closest to him are beginning to realize their error.
This is why we’re seeing a lot of stories come out about a split between a populist nationalist wing led by Steve Bannon and a more pragmatic wing that is led by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, his daughter Ivanka, and his director of the National Economic Council, Gary Cohn.
One simple way of understanding this is that Kushner, Ivanka and Cohn are realizing that they’re going to need Democrats to do much of what Trump promised he would do. To the Bannon wing, such an assertion is nonsensical. He made promises the Democrats have no interest in helping him keep, and he should stick to the agenda that attracted his base to him in the first place. Running to the Democrats is a betrayal.
But this is just a right-wing version of the unfair criticism President Obama often faced from his left-wing base. If you don’t have the political power to do something either because your own party is too divided or because your political opposition is too united, then whatever that something is is not going to get done. At least, it’s not going to get done in the form in which you promised that it would.
Democrats, from the ivory towers of think tanks down to the unions halls, all agree on the urgent need for infrastructure spending. The knowledgable among them know that going another four or eight years without major investments in roads and bridges and health and education and technology is a recipe for further wealth disparity and disenchantment among their previous supporters in the hollowed out non-urban parts of the country. They want a big infrastructure bill not to help Trump but to help themselves and the American people. But they have no interest in passing an infrastructure bill that takes the form of what Trump initially proposed, and they won’t help pass that kind of bill. What Gary Cohn, for example, understands is that the Republicans won’t pass the infrastructure bill that Trump proposed, either, so the only way anything is going to get done is to make an approach to the Democrats.
I’ve argued that it’s too late to do this, and that Trump has essentially screwed the pooch in two ways. The first is that he took what was already a toxic campaign (and campaign result) and ramped it up once he came into office. The Democrats can’t afford to work with him now even if they wanted to, and they don’t. The second is that Trump is now vulnerable to congressional oversight to such a degree that he can’t afford to split his own party or turn a significant portion of them against him. He needs a united and enthusiastic Republican Congress to run interference on investigations that threaten to take down his presidency.
For both reasons, the pivot that the so-called New York Democrats want to make is doomed. They may get a chance to try, however, because the Democrats will listen on infrastructure and perhaps on some iterations of tax reform, too.
But before we can get to this next act in the play, the Republicans must first avert a government shutdown or resolve it after it takes place. And this is an inflection point in Trump’s administration. If it can only be resolved with Democratic votes, it will endanger the Speakership of Paul Ryan and the loyalty to Trump of the Republican base and congressional caucuses. In normal circumstances, without all the ethical and possibly criminal vulnerabilities Trump is already exposed to, this would be a welcome and rational realignment in Congress that would allow him to govern as a hybrid politician. In some ways, this is how Arnold Schwarzenegger saved his governorship after a rocky start.
But California Democrats had far fewer reasons for keeping Schwarzeneggar at arm’s length than do the Washington Democrats to eschew cooperation with Trump. And Schwarzeneggar didn’t have or need Republican control of the legislative committees to protect him from being impeached.
There is now a new genre of articles appearing about Bannon-supporting Republicans who are disillusioned with Trump’s pivot to the Democrats (even though this pivot is still in the theoretical stage), but these folks are suffering from the same delusions as many of Obama’s early critics, who couldn’t understand why he hadn’t closed the prison at Guantanamo or passed a bigger stimulus or enacted comprehensive immigration reform or moved faster on gay rights. A president can be guided by policies and principles but he or she must ultimately find a way to work within the power structure and political climate that exist not the ones he or she might wish exist. Some promises cannot be kept, and others need to get put low in the queue. Compromises have to made for anything to happen at all, and some results will be flawed as a result and need to be revisited by ensuing administrations.
Republican intransigence hurt Obama simply by making him look naive to promise that he could change how Washington works and find partners across the aisle. Donald Trump looks bad for a slightly different reason. He said he was an expert dealmaker and that many of our problems could be addressed quickly and surprisingly easily with his kind of leadership skills. That’s already looking like a bad joke as a set of promises.
What’s he realizing, too late, is that the deals he needed to make precluded him from going with an all-Republican legislative strategy. And, the need for Democrats meant that he was going to have to abandon his hard right promises.
The logic of legislating is forcing itself upon Trump now, but he’s too weak, tainted and vulnerable to recover from his initial miscalculations.
And no matter what he does, succeed or fail, his base is going to feel disappointed and betrayed. That’s the cost of living in a fantasy world and putting your trust in someone who promises you the impossible.