‘He likes us. He likes me, anyway.” Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Party’s leader in the US Senate, does indeed have some natural affinity with President Donald Trump. The former was born in Brooklyn, the latter in Queens. They are both sons of the outer boroughs of New York, men who will always know that Manhattan looks down on them.
Last week a live microphone picked up Schumer’s account of his most recent conversation with the president. “I said, ‘Mr President, you’re much better off if you can sometimes step right and sometimes step left. If you have to step just to one direction, you’re boxed.’ He gets that . . . It’s going to work out, and it’ll make us more productive too.”
It seems like the craziest idea in modern American political history. A Republican president whose party controls both houses of Congress and who enjoys enduring popularity among Republican voters is playing footsie with the Democrats. The ghastly possibility is dawning on Trump’s most ardent supporters on the right that he might be contemplating outright defection or becoming the first bipartisan president in American history.
It all began 11 days ago when Trump astonished Republicans by — seemingly on an impulse — agreeing to the Democratic leadership’s proposal: they would vote for aid for the victims of Hurricane Harvey if the debt ceiling were raised and government funding continued for just three months. Trump’s own side had been planning to raise the debt ceiling for a year and a half.
That very morning the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, had denounced the Democrats’ proposal as “ridiculous and disgraceful”. Yet Trump swallowed it whole, leaving his party to contemplate a hideous legislative pile-up in December. Schumer and his House of Representatives colleague Nancy Pelosi did not attempt to conceal their glee. Trump added insult to injury by referring to them fondly as “Chuck and Nancy”.
This was no aberration. Earlier this month the attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, announced the end of the programme known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which shielded from deportation about 690,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as minors. On Thursday Trump dumbfounded Republicans a second time by signalling his willingness to grant permanent legal status to the so-called “dreamers” as part of another deal with Democrats. Was this deal going to be contingent on the Dems agreeing to fund Trump’s US-Mexico border wall? Nope.
Across conservative America the cry went up: what happened? Ann Coulter, author of In Trump We Trust, tweeted bitterly: “At this point, who DOESN’T want Trump impeached?”
So what did happen? The knee-jerk answer is that Trump committed political suicide. By flip-flopping on one of the core issues of his campaign last year — cracking down on illegal immigration — Trump risks alienating his electoral base. Moreover, he risks demoralising his party in Congress.
Any normal president would be working night and day to ensure that they deliver a successful tax bill, to compensate for their miserable failure to repeal Obamacare. Without a successful package of tax cuts, the Republicans will have scarcely any achievements to run on this time next year as the November mid-term elections approach. And if the Republicans lose control of the House, then Trump himself might well face impeachment.
Yet it is always a mistake to assess Trump by the yardsticks of conventional politics. First, the polling data. You might think Republican voters would hate what Trump has just done as much as Coulter. You would be wrong. More than two-thirds of people who voted for Trump last year say underage illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay if they have been in America for 10 years and have graduated from high school. And 72% think it’s good for the country if Trump works with congressional Democrats.
Second, consider the setting: a Washington widely despised by the electorate, only 16% of whom give Congress a positive rating. Last week I visited the nation’s capital. My main takeaway is that the term “unified government” can no longer meaningfully be applied. There is only nominal unity between the different branches of government.
How Republican is the White House these days anyway? The final outcome of the power struggle within it was the near disappearance of both the conservative element (Reince Priebus) and the arch-populist (Steve Bannon). What remains are the generals (John Kelly, HR McMaster), who are by training unpolitical, and the New York Rinos — “Republicans in name only” — who are essentially Democrats (Jared Kushner, Gary Cohn).
In the next-door Eisenhower Executive Office Building, meanwhile, there is mounting frustration among Trump’s appointees at the difficulty of changing the direction of national security strategy. A substantial portion of officials below the top echelon are holdovers from the previous regime or career civil servants. In effect, the White House is an elected head that sits atop the bloated body of the administrative state. The latter is deeply Democratic. Washington is, after all, a liberal stronghold where Hillary Clinton won 91% of votes last year.
Recall the complaints at last year’s Grand Old Party convention that Trump and his close advisers were “Republidents” — half Republican, half independent — with little commitment to conservative principles. Recall, too, Trump’s rage at the Republican leadership’s failure to deliver on healthcare.
It seems at first sight unimaginable that the president could make a habit of co-operating with the Democrats. Doing so would make his already bad relations with the Republican leadership unsalvageable. And the Democrats have little incentive to compromise with an unpopular president.
Based on my observations in Washington, Republicans are counting on the Democrats to self-harm, whether through the return of Clinton to the political scene to hawk her It Should’ve Been Me! memoir, or the readiness of the left of the party to descend into identity politics or to legitimise the “Antifa” — anti-fascist — movement.
But what if the real threat to Republicans is posed by the man who, like a cuckoo in the nest, they were forced to nominate as their candidate? If the Democrats seem likely to win back the House, Trump has every reason to flirt with Chuck and Nancy. Trading immunity for things he and they can agree on such as a big infrastructure bill might be his best hope of avoiding impeachment.
Past presidents have changed party allegiance while in office. John Quincy Adams became a Whig after he was elected in 1824. John Tyler ceased to be a Whig after he became president in 1841. And Abraham Lincoln ran in 1864 not as a Republican but as the leader of the National Union Party.
Could Trump run for re-election in 2020 as a Rino? It seems nuts. But so did 2016.