Old and busted: Barack Obama blew his presidency by not following Bill Clinton’s triangulation strategy after his first midterm loss. New hotness: Triangulation is the debbil!* Now that Donald Trump has gone through a midterm correction of his own, he’s offering paeans to Nancy Pelosi and bipartisanship. That has Republicans and especially conservatives on Capitol Hill worried that the famously pragmatic president might cut them out of the loop to get deals made:
Conservatives who have learned to love President Trump, a relative newcomer to their movement, could emerge from Tuesday’s election anxious that he might now leave them in the cold to cut deals with newly empowered congressional Democrats.
On the horizon are an array of hot-button issues that are top priorities for conservatives but could prove tempting areas of compromise for the famously transactional Trump as he seeks to repair his presidency ahead of the 2020 election.
Those include the next federal budget and an expiring debt limit in March, along with potential bipartisan talks on politically sensitive matters such as immigration and health care, both of which have been central to the midterm campaign.
It didn’t take the loss of the House to stoke those same fears about Trump and his lack of ideological conviction. In the summer of 2017, Joel Pollak warned that Trump was about to dump conservatives and throw in with Democrats a la Arnold Schwarzenegger after firing Steve Bannon as a White House political adviser. (The year before, I wrote that Trump could turn into a Jesse Ventura and just alienate everyone.)
Nor were those fears entirely unjustified. Conservatives had to haul Trump back across the line when he initially made proposals for legitimizing DACA, fearing he’d gone too far. Democrats rescued them by demanding more for nothing much in the way of concessions, and the issue has stagnated ever since. Trump has gone off the reservation on a few other issues too, only to be held back by his allies on Capitol Hill.
However, the Dark Night Of The Arnoldization of Trump has never arrived, and almost certainly never will. Trump likes cutting deals, and he likes freaking people out by tossing out-of-the-box proposals around just to get reactions and shift the Overton Window on the debate. His instincts have been to stick with the GOP, mainly for his own survival because Democrats are so openly hostile that it’s suicide to rely on them. In California, Democrats welcomed Schwarzenegger’s conversion to the dominant club. In Washington, they’d embrace Trump just long enough to get the rope around his neck on the gallows. And Trump knows it.
Trump’s sticking with the GOP and Mitch McConnell for another reason. They’re the only rational path to get anything done. Nancy Pelosi may have a narrow House majority, but that doesn’t mean she can hold them together to cut any deals without Republican assistance. New members from marginal districts are not going to be cheerful about casting votes on controversial legislation if there’s no chance of a bill getting a Senate vote. Mitch McConnell will be the gatekeeper, on both Pelosi and on Trump, in that sense.
Would it be different if Democrats had seized control of the Senate and Chuck Schumer became the gatekeeper? Maybe. Or maybe Trump would have seen what he could accomplish with a pen and a phone for a while instead. Like Barack Obama, Trump doesn’t have a great capacity for accommodation as a natural instinct, and unlike Obama, he doesn’t spend a lot of effort making a pretense out of it. But at any rate, Schumer doesn’t control the situation — McConnell and Trump do.
Will there be compromises? Of course; compromise is part of politics. There’s room for real progress on some issues, especially immigration reform and border security, if both sides will allow themselves to be satisfied by getting three-quarters of what they claim to want. It’s more likely that both sides will spend the next two years setting up their arguments in the 2020 election instead, but … you never know. There may be enough people on both sides of the aisle who won’t think that compromise is the debbil! In 2019, anyway.
*: Apologies to Kathy Bates and Adam Sandler.