If the first soul-searching debate for Democrats following Donald Trump’s election last month was how to remake their party, the second—and even more immediate—was how to approach the new president.
There are innumerable reasons for Democrats to adopt the exact same strategy congressional Republicans took on day one of Barack Obama’s presidency, denying him any bipartisan support for signature initiatives. Trump is far less popular than Obama was in late 2008, so an opposition strategy based on refusal and obstruction wouldn’t carry much political risk. And given Trump’s utter moral bankruptcy, he’s also far less deserving of their comity and collaboration.
There’s another benefit to this approach: We know, thanks to the Republicans, that it works.
Still, many Democrats have seized on the president-elect’s few policy proposals, like infrastructure investment, that depart slightly from traditional Republican orthodoxy, signaling a willingness to work together. Some, like Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, are likely suspects—Democrats from Republican and swing states that Trump won, for whom bipartisanship is a political imperative.
“I am committed to working with President Trump and his Administration to find commonsense solutions to pass the Miners Protection Act, solve our opioid crisis, rebuild our infrastructure, reform our broken tax code, keep faith with our veterans and build an economy that works for all Americans,” Manchin said in statement Tuesday.
Yet even some of the party’s left wing and in its leadership have offered Trump overtures, albeit conditional ones. “To the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him,” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said in a statement immediately after last month’s election. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have said similar things. The latter, while critical of Trump’s infrastructure plan, nonetheless has spoken of forging a bipartisan compromise, bidding for a combination of public and private funding.
And Schumer isn’t the only Democrat in Washington pitching collaboration, as was evident Wednesday in a forum titled “Drain the Swamp? Regulatory Reform Under President Trump.”
Will Marshall, president of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute, touted “a moment of opportunity” for bipartisanship, calling for Democrats to get on board with sensible solutions to regulatory reform—measures like a proposed Regulatory Improvement Commission to get rid of old, outdated rules. “This is a ready vehicle for action,” he said. “It’s already got bipartisan support. We have bills in the House and Senate with sponsorship from both parties. If we were to get into that vehicle and drive it forward I think we could get an early win—a bipartisan advance.”
Such thinking misreads how Republicans are going to approach total power. On the very same panel as Marshall on Wednesday, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich—a top Trump adviser—continued his deification of the president-elect, declaring with characteristic grandiosity that “the basic radicalism of Trumpism is dramatically greater than Reagan was in 1980 or we were in 1994,” referring to the Republican revolution he led in Congress. Gingrich believes that the entire existing regulatory framework no longer matters—that Trump will “take apart” the bureaucracy in Washington and oust from it anyone who stands in his way. On that last subject, the former speaker touted “a short essay of genius quality” called “The Intellectual Yet Idiot,” in which Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a professor of risk engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, denigrates “the inner circle of no-skin-in-the-game policymaking ‘clerks’ and journalists-insiders, that class of paternalistic semi-intellectual experts,” essentially arguing that none of these people have any real knowledge of value.
This isn’t exactly a framework for collaboration.
“If your mindset is that Washington, D.C., is a swamp of corruption and idiocy, then it’s very difficult to have a second paragraph of that discussion,” Bill Galston, a centrist Democratic senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told The New Republic after he spoke at Wednesday’s forum. “My view is that you have good people trapped in a highly suboptimal system that, like all systems, reflects ideas that are past their sell-by date.”
But even Galston, who stressed that Democrats can’t shape the Trump administration, holds out hope for bipartisanship premised on an awful lot of dominoes falling the right way. He said he’s “heard from people quite close” to House Speaker Paul Ryan that greater public investment in infrastructure might be negotiable.
“If the Trump administration proposes something that, with negotiation, can be made consistent with the public interest, we ought to negotiate,” Galston said. “When its ideas are bad, we should reject them and propose better ones, and when its actions threaten basic constitutional norms and institutions, we should resist by all means possible.”
In a normal political environment, with a normal president-elect, this kind of open-minded posture would be laudable. But it looks impractical in the current environment. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already put Trump on notice about public infrastructure spending, saying “I hope we avoid a trillion-dollar stimulus,” and there’s every indication the president-elect will defer to congressional conservatives on policy details. Besides, if McConnell is this quick to push back on Trump from the right, why would he let Schumer shift policy to the left? Nothing about this transition period suggests Republicans are amenable to compromise with Democrats—not Trump’s appointments and nominations, not the GOP’s behavior in Congress, and certainly not all of the crowing from the likes of Gingrich.
There’s also the question of whether Democrats should demand concessions from Trump before they’d even agree to work with him—whether this is a moment for them to be aggressive, not acquiescent. Slate’s Jamelle Bouie has argued that any Democratic collaboration with Trump should be predicated on his reducing and repudiating the racial hatred he stoked in his campaign. The president-elect has done nothing of the sort, yet a number of Democrats have made the decision that they can work with an unrepentantly racist, sexist, xenophobic demagogue—so long as he’ll negotiate with them.
The case for collaboration—even with Trump—is straightforward. Political leaders are supposed to come together to serve the people. But collaborating with Trump is to normalize him, and moreover such collaboration would come at a cost to progressive policies. Republicans aren’t talking about bipartisanship, and neither is the president-elect. Until that changes, Democrats need to drop the subject, too, and fight like hell instead.