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The Risk That Nancy Pelosi Is Willing to Take

The Democratic leader's negotiations with Trump could further divide the party. But what if her dalliance with the president pays off?

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has been basking in praise from her Democratic caucus after winning some unexpected concessions from President Donald Trump. On Tuesday, Trump surprised Washington by agreeing to a plan crafted by Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to raise the the debt ceiling and fund the government for three months while also providing funds for Hurricane Harvey relief, a move that infuriated Republicans. Then Pelosi pressed Trump to reassure DREAMers that they’re not in immediate danger following the administration’s recent decision to phase out DACA, the Obama-era program protecting young undocumented immigrants from deportation. Trump acceded:

As Pelosi boasted at a press conference on Thursday, “I was telling my colleagues, ‘This is what I asked the president to do,’ and boom boom boom, the tweet appeared.”

Pelosi has reason to be proud, especially with the debt ceiling deal, which will give Democrats leverage in future negotiations. Yet her moves, while being applauded by most Democratic lawmakers, are also creating a rift in her own party. A minority of Democrats who are especially passionate about the fate of the DREAMers are worried that Pelosi has been too lenient with Trump, trading away a chance to push him harder on DACA. Trump’s tweet, in particular, seems like a hollow victory since it was so ambiguously worded as to create more anxiety than comfort.

As Jeff Stein reports at Vox, some immigrant rights activists and Democratic lawmakers feel that Pelosi and Schumer settled for too little and have made a premature peace with Trump at a time when more protests are the way to go. Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez told Stein that Schumer and Pelosi “did not use the leverage we as Democrats have. Republicans need us each and every instance — to pass the debt ceiling and fund the government, and pass Harvey relief. And what do we do? We collaborated while they devastate our communities.” In a statement to Vox, three activist groups (United We Dream, the National Immigration Law Center, and Indivisible) said, “The world’s attention is focused on DACA and public sympathy for the many young immigrants... And yet Democratic leaders Schumer and Pelosi instead chose to make a deal with Trump, with a vague promise of action on the DREAM Act down the road.”

The progressives furious at Pelosi have a point. Since Trump’s election, Democrats have been most successful when activists and legislators have united in lockstep opposition to the Republican agenda, as in the fight to save Obamacare. Given his repeated flirtations with white supremacy, Trump is so noxious a figure that any move to grant him legitimacy violates the core values of the Democratic Party. Moreover, Trump is notoriously erratic. Convincing him to post a favorable tweet is a questionable achievement, since he’s more likely than not to go back on his word. As The New York Times’ Peter Baker and Sheryl Gay Stolberg put it on Thursday:

Although Mr. Trump has at times preached bipartisanship, he has never made it a central part of his governing strategy. While he may have been feeling energized on Thursday by the collaboration, he is a politician driven by the latest expression of approval, given to abrupt shifts in approach and tone. He is a man of the moment, and the moment often does not last.

Of course, since Trump is the president, sometimes it will be worthwhile to negotiate with him. The brief lifting of the debt ceiling, for instance, can be leveraged for future victories three months down the line. But Pelosi would do well to have modest expectations of Trump, and not to oversell any handshake agreements with him. As Baker and Stolberg wrote, “There are also reasons to doubt whether Democrats would sustain a partnership with Mr. Trump beyond the deal they have cut to keep the government open for three months and paying its debts. The centrifugal forces of partisanship tug from the left as well as the right, and the liberal base has put pressure on Democratic lawmakers not to meet in the middle a president it loathes.”

Perhaps the best strategy for Democrats is one familiar from police procedurals on TV. Pelosi could be the good cop, telling Trump that Democrats are ready to make a deal—and tempting him with the positive press coverage he craves. (As he reportedly told Pelosi by phone after their deal was announced, “The press has been incredible.”) Meanwhile activist groups and lawmakers like Gutierrez protest in a more strident manner, perhaps even with direct action like when activists disrupted a meal at Trump’s Washington hotel. Then Pelosi could tell Trump that he needs to push the DREAM Act—that is, to permanently protect undocumented immigrants brought to America as children—if he wants any further cooperation from Democrats. Such pincer movement might provide Pelosi with leverage to extract greater concessions.

A good cop/bad cop strategy could work if the progressive wing of the party trusts Pelosi to represent their interests. But such inter-party trust has been in short supply ever since last year’s bitter Democratic primary, and earlier this year some House Democrats even openly criticized Pelosi’s leadership and discussed whether to try to oust her. Given this animosity, Pelosi’s dalliance with Trump runs the risk of backfiring, convincing progressives that she’s a sellout. That would only further widen the rift in the party, at a time when Democrats need to come together to stop the Republican agenda and win back power in next year’s midterm elections. But if Pelosi can somehow cut even more favorable deals with Trump, she would be advancing progressive interests and setting the party up for electoral success next fall. If anyone can thread that needle, Pelosi can.