Trump Could Have Broken the Democratic Party

Instead he embraced Paul Ryan’s cartoonishly plutocratic agenda and wrecked his first 100 days.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Win McNamee/Getty Images and Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images.
Paul Ryan and Donald Trump.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Win McNamee/Getty Images and Olivier Douliery/Getty Images.

In the days and weeks after the shock election result of Nov. 8, a slew of high-profile Democrats indicated they’d be willing to work with then President-elect Trump on a major infrastructure bill. These names included House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and iconic progressive Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. They may, at first, have only made these comments as a postelection olive branch, and it didn’t mean they were signing onto the Trump campaign’s specific infrastructure proposal to offer tax breaks to builders of toll roads. All it meant was that boosting infrastructure spending was one policy area where Trump’s interests overlapped with the Democratic Party’s.

Then the politics kicked in. Liberal commentators, along with a mobilized activist base of the party, made it clear that what they wanted from their leaders was resistance, not finding areas of common ground. Even before Trump was sworn in, this presented a golden opportunity for him: If he had offered Democrats a few hundred billion dollars to fund badly needed infrastructure projects, he could have forced Democrats to make a difficult choice between the base politics of resistance and a proposal with which they agreed in broad strokes. In short, he could have presented them with a difficult choice and watched them drown in intraparty feuding. Many Democratic strategists were worried that Trump would be canny enough to do precisely that.

To these strategists’ relief, Trump didn’t follow this path. He instead outsourced the policymaking of his administration to House Speaker Paul Ryan, who immediately lit the fuse on his long-planned governing agenda designed for comically villainous caricatures of plutocrats: slashing Medicaid to finance upper-income tax cuts, which would then magically ease the budgetary path for further upper-income and corporate tax cuts. It has been a no-brainer for all Democrats to oppose all of this, as vocally as possible.

That, in a nutshell, has been the problem with Trump’s legislative agenda these first 100 days: He has not forced Democrats to make any difficult choices, while cracking up his own party over a politically unpopular agenda.

Trump was much better positioned to force difficult choices on Democrats than a generic Republican candidate—a Marco Rubio or a Jeb Bush—would have been. He has no real policy convictions or allegiance to the Republican establishment, and his base sticks with him regardless of his heresies against conservative orthodoxy they were never truly committed to anyway. But his lack of policy convictions is not a learned rejection of ideology. It’s not as if he’s studied the issues and resolved that Democrats have some good ideas and Republicans others. He just hasn’t studied the issues at all and doesn’t think policy specifics are nearly as important as the appearance of ego-boosting “wins.” He decided that policy was the stuff that Ryan would take care of, because cable news tends to describe Ryan as Washington’s leading policy genius.

Trump was bewildered that health care reform could be so complicated. We know because a bewildered Trump said in February that “nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” His inability to grasp the issue made it difficult for him to serve as an effective broker between competing interests within the House Republican conference. When Freedom Caucus members meeting with Trump last March tried explaining to him their policy concerns, Trump grew bored and reportedly cut them off. “Forget about the little shit,” he said, according to a Politico report. “Let’s focus on the big picture here.” The big picture he relayed, in Politico’s paraphrasing, was that the American Health Care Act’s defeat “would derail his first-term agenda and imperil his prospects for reelection in 2020.” Might not his prospects for re-election in 2020 actually improve, though, if the disastrous first-term agenda Ryan laid out for him derailed?

If Trump’s first mistake was to outsource all legislative action to Ryan, his second was not to change course after Ryan’s first major legislative effort collapsed. Trump could have treated the initial failure of the AHCA—a bill polling at 17 percent approval—as a victory over a constraining establishment ideology he didn’t care about and the ideal opportunity to jettison Ryan’s agenda, which is only popular with the Republican tycoon donor class. He could have shifted from forcing hard political choices on members of the House Republican conference to forcing them on Democrats, as he should have—and could have—been doing all along. Instead, he may yet bludgeon House moderates into joining the Freedom Caucus to pass a modified version of the AHCA. If that happens, it will be bad enough for him and the Republican majority in the House, and his next move should be to pray that it dies in the Senate.

Democrats wouldn’t have just faced a hard choice between their politics and their policy on infrastructure, though that’s the most obvious example. A bipartisan coalition stretching from Sanders and the Congressional Black Caucus to Sens. John McCain and Ted Cruz was ready to address prescription costs through drug reimportation and/or freeing Medicare to negotiate with drug companies. Trump could make this an immediate priority, get something bipartisan passed, reap the political benefits of lowering drug prices for old people, and expose a significant bloc of Democrats that’s owned by the pharmaceutical industry to scrutiny from an angry and activated liberal base. He could also pursue middle-class tax cuts instead of a 20 percentage point cut in corporate taxes and elimination of the estate tax. Democrats would at least have to get creative coming up with reasons not to support this agenda, something they have not once had to do.

The strategic test for Trump, on whatever he makes a priority going forward, should be: Does this apply any pressure on Democrats to participate? Does it make them sweat, even a little bit? It is political malpractice for Trump to allow Democrats’ knee-jerk resistance to align with their actual core policy preferences, as he’s done with the regressive AHCA and is planning to do on taxes. It was catastrophic to go all-in on a health care plan that Sen. Joe Manchin, the vulnerable, red-state conservative Democrat, could reject with the same vehemence and clarity of purpose that Sanders rejected it. One understands why Ryan is willing to pursue a politically unpopular agenda: because he’s a conservative true believer who thinks these reforms are necessary to enact his worldview, no matter the political cost. That’s not Trump. So why is he still tagging along?