There’s No Interest Like Self-Interest
For the first time since his inauguration, President Trump has delivered on what voters were seeking when they elected him in 2016: Incremental progress.
His decision to side with Democrats and support a short-term extension of the debt ceiling in order to get quick action on hurricane relief funding may not reflect a new White House strategy, but the public reaction should be taken as a sign by the president and the leaders of Congress from both political parties. Americans want more of the same.
Voters, for the most part, understand that when it comes to public policy there are extreme positions on almost every important issue. They also believe in compromise and expect that as adults sent to Washington to represent all Americans, members of Congress will work through the tough issues and solve them by finding resolution in the middle. Americans do not expect every issue to be decided with a party line vote. They don’t want full policy reversals when there is a change in which party holds the White House. They would like to see solutions to big issues decided with votes contributed from both parties and with extremists left shaking their fists from the sidelines. The more often issues can be settled through compromise, the more often most Americans can declare victory.
The experience of the last eight months should teach President Trump and the Republican leadership two things. They can not pass most legislation without Democratic votes, therefore, they can not continue to push an agenda that leans fully to the right. Democrats do not have the votes to control the agenda, but they have enough to tug it toward the center.
It is hard to say how many Americans even noticed President Trump’s decision to side with Democrats on the debt ceiling. The speed of the news cycle quickly swept the story under the threat presented by Hurricane Irma. In Washington, everyone noticed. Republicans were perturbed and Democrats were devilishly gleeful. Republicans felt betrayed and Democrats were given hope that there is a way out of the wilderness in which they currently find themselves. They appear to have taken advantage of a president they consider to be of lesser intellect and he seems to have enjoyed the experience.
This new model will only continue however if all three sides — the president, congressional Republicans and Democrats — can see how it would serve their own best interest. Leadership to embrace compromise as standard operating procedure can only come from one of two sources; the president or Republicans on Capitol Hill. They have the power, they alone can decide how and when to share it.
For most of the last three decades, the majority party in Congress has rarely agreed to share power with the minority. Both major parties are controlled by their outer wings. Republicans have been especially susceptible to this tendency. A decision by Speaker Paul Ryan to begin searching for legislation that can be passed with a mix of Republican and Democratic votes might cost him his leadership role. Senate Leader Mitch McConnell might have more room to seek compromise and might have greater incentive to do so, because of the need to get sixty votes in the Senate to advance most legislation. Most political observers do not expect a move toward bi-partisanship to come from Capitol Hill. That leaves us with President Trump.
All reports indicate Trump was basking in favorable press reviews the morning after his reach across party lines on the debt ceiling. He called Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to share in the first blush of a new and promising relationship. Pelosi gave Trump tweeting advice and he took it. His reaction to the positive press is understandable, because for the last nine months he has endured a never-ending stream of bad press from a hostile news media.
During the 2016 campaign, when it began to appear he might actually have a chance of winning the Republican nomination, questions began to be asked about whether Trump could learn to behave like a president. In numerous interviews and public appearances Trump promised that he could. He could transform his personality to a point that would be so presidential he would risk being boring. Perhaps that answer should have signaled how difficult the transformation would be, but it was good enough — it seems — to ease the concerns of some voters.
As the president waited for Hurricane Irma to make landfall in Florida he traveled with many of his cabinet members for a weekend at Camp David. If Trump is capable of quiet reflection, if some in his cabinet are pragmatic enough, courageous enough, to admit that the first nine months of the Trump administration has been a near total failure; this weekend escape could mark a turning point.
In a world I admit is only a fantasy at this point, Trump could return from Camp David committed to a new approach. Here’s what it might look like.
When he travels to Florida to survey the damage from the latest hurricane, he will take with him aboard Air Force One; Speaker Ryan, Pelosi, and Senators McConnell and Schumer. He will use the trip to remind each of them that their leadership jobs require them to work together on behalf of their country not the preservation or pursuit of congressional majorities. He will use the trip back from Florida to persuade the congressional leadership to conspire with him to agree to focus on what unites them, in terms of policy, rather than what divides them based on wedge issues that might help either side win elections.
The president would then address the nation and explain that he has come to agreement with the leaders on a new agenda that includes budget reform, tax reform, healthcare reform, immigration reform and new investments in the American economy. He will pledge to use his experience as a deal maker to keep both sides focused on finding common ground in the name of incremental progress. He will reject his own devotion to the 33% of the American voting public that constitutes his base, because he will realize that rejecting the dogma of that base could lead to a bigger base. Maybe something over 50%.
This fantasy is not pure. It is grounded in old fashioned political self-interest. It is in Donald Trump’s self-interest to become a statesman. It is in his self-interest to shed the chaos theory he thinks makes him successful and be the deal-maker he promised to be. For those who believe Trump is too self-absorbed to ever change, think of it this way; because he is self-absorbed there is every reason to believe he can change. At some point he has to realize what he has been doing has not been working. At some point, if he hopes to end the current misery of his first year in office, if he has any hope of winning re-election, or even winning renomination by the Republican Party, he must adopt a new strategy. Progress through bi-partisan compromise always polls well. If Trump is an unprincipled chameleon now is the time to put that trait to work.
Look at it this way President Trump: What do you have to lose?