Trump’s Deal-Making With Democrats Poses a Dilemma

According the press reports, Trump is exuberant about all of the positive press he’s receiving after making a deal with the Democrats on Harvey aid, the budget and the debt ceiling. He’s so pleased that he is talking about working with them to eliminate the need to constantly revisit the issue of raising the debt ceiling.

Matt Yglesias advises the president that this is “a template for how Trump can get things done.” While Kevin Drum is right to be skeptical, given the fact that Republicans still control Congress, this assessment from Yglesias stood out to me:

Congressional Democrats have a very limited amount of leverage in Washington, but they are disciplined enough to wield it and also pragmatic enough to cut deals.

What strikes me about that statement is that it simply describes how things used to work in Congress until Republicans decided to place party over country and embraced the strategy of total obstruction. Right now people are reeling about the possibility that Democrats might actually work with the president to get some positive things done. But that used to be the normal course of business. You don’t even have to be an oldie like me to remember that. Some of you might recall how Democrats worked with Bush to get prescription drug coverage in Medicare and pass No Child Left Behind. Those were surely imperfect pieces of legislation. But they demonstrate that Democrats have never embraced the idea of total obstruction—that has always been a uniquely Republican strategy.

This is why one of the most significant media failures during the Obama presidency was how they carried water for the Republicans by suggesting that the gridlock in Congress was the result of “both sides do it.” No matter how far Obama went in reaching out to the opposing party (and angered his base in doing so), it never broke through the mythology of bothsiderism. That gave Mitch McConnell a pass and led to the ultimate obstruction in his unprecedented move to deny a sitting president’s SCOTUS nominee a hearing.

So it doesn’t surprise me that Democrats might be open to working with Donald Trump when it is in their interests to do so. That is how our representative democracy is supposed to work. Republicans have always been the outliers on that.

But there are a couple of things that we need to keep in mind and that Democratic leaders need to be clear about. The most obvious is that this comity from Trump won’t last. As I’ve said before, his pattern is to turn rather viciously on people when he feels threatened or isn’t shown enough deference. The one thing that is sure to spark that is the impending investigation into whether or not his campaign colluded with the Russians.

The other thing is that, while the president might reach out to Democrats in order to pass legislation, his administration is still staffed by people like Jeff Sessions, Rex Tilerson, Betsy DeVos, Scott Pruitt, Mick Mulvaney, Tom Price, Ben Carson and Rick Perry. These people are wrecking havoc, not only on the federal bureaucracy, but in the policies they enact. That kind of thing has never gotten the kind of attention that is afforded to legislative initiatives. But it touches peoples lives in even more direct ways. You need look no further than what Betsy DeVos has been doing lately to see that.

Are the American people prepared to see the nuance of an administration that might be capable of working with Democrats legislatively to end the debt ceiling fiasco and at the same time recognize the destruction that same administration is causing on everything from civil rights to education to climate change, etc? That is the dilemma we might be facing right now—at least until Trump has his next temper tantrum.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.