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How Democrats Can Over-Promise Like Trump

It worked for the president. It can work for his opponents, too.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

President Donald Trump is often accused of being a snake-oil salesman who will say whatever he thinks people want to hear, reality be damned. This is a fair characterization, given Trump’s history as a businessman. “I play to people’s fantasies,” he said in The Art of the Deal, the 1987 book that helped make him a world-famous businessman. But Politico’s Matthew Nussbaum sees Trump’s swindling as a governing strategy.

“Trump has made a habit of sweeping promises that net headlines, only to deliver more modest results,” Nussbaum wrote in March, adding that Trump’s “habit of overpromising and underdelivering has created a credibility gap unknown to the presidency in the modern era.”

This observation is becoming less true by the day. While Trump has had difficulty pushing through his legislative agenda, despite his party’s control of Congress, he has vigorously used his executive power to satisfy the Republican base. On Wednesday, he announced the U.S. will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, the latest of many decisions that deliver on his campaign promises: He pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, rescinded DACA, ordered the U.S. embassy in Israel to move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and appointed conservative judges throughout the judiciary, including Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.

Trump can be faulted for often keeping these promises without a clear sense of what policies will replace them. If the courts don’t save DACA, what will happen to the hundreds of thousands of adult undocumented immigrants who were brought to America as children? Will they be deported, leaving their children here without parents? And with the Iran deal scrapped, how does will the U.S. prevent the country from developing a nuclear arsenal?

Still, even those who disagree Trump’s decisions are giving him credit for being true to his words. Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution tweeted on Wednesday:

Democrats can learn a lot from Trump in this regard. He may have over-promised, but it got him elected. Now he’s delivering on many of his promises—and if his steady approval rating is any indication, his base seems to forgive him for the promises he hasn’t been able to keep. As much as Democrats loathe Trump’s crude politics, this is one tactic they ought to emulate if they ever hope to regain power in Washington.

One of the advantages of over-promising is that you can negotiate from a better position. As the saying goes: If you want half a loaf, you ask for the whole.

Thus, even where Trump has been stymied, he’s still delivering some returns on his promises. He didn’t get his “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” for instance, but his latest travel ban—which affects five countries that are Muslim-majority, and two that aren’t—may well be upheld by the Supreme Court. His “big, beautiful wall” along the Mexican border hasn’t been built, but he got $1.6 billion in funding from Congress and has been evaluating wall prototypes.

Moreover, Trump has shifted the Overton Window—the range of acceptable discourse. Indeed, the Republican Party as a whole is now following Trump in becoming more anti-immigrant.

Trump has been accused of deepening the hyper-polarization of American politics, which is almost certainly true, but he didn’t cause it. His approach to governing over a divided country isn’t new, either: He learned it from his predecessor. After the Democrats lost the House of Representatives in 2010, President Barack Obama faced a rejectionist opposition bent on thwarting his every action and possessing considerable veto power. At first reluctantly, but then with increasing vigor in his final term, he tried to do an end run around the Republican Party by using executive power. (The key difference is that Trump’s own party controls Congress, but it is divided nonetheless, such that last year’s tax cuts were Trump’s only major legislative achievement.)

It is much easier to thwart legislation, and even to repeal laws, than vice versa. That gives Republicans (who, as conservatives, resist change) a distinct advantage over Democrats (who, as progressives, advocate change). This is why, historically speaking, Democrats are legislative realists: They’re wary of promising more than they can deliver, knowing how difficult it is to push reforms through Congress. In 2016, Hillary Clinton often sounded like a candidate eager to dampen expectations. Countering Bernie Sanders’s arguments for free college, Clinton said, “My late father said, ‘If somebody promises you something for free, read the fine print.’”

But Trump’s success in overturning much of Obama’s legacy shows Democrats the rewards for over-promising. They can promise to end Trump’s travel ban and reinstate DACA, knowing a Democratic president could achieve both through executive power. They can promise to hobble Trump’s agenda, knowing from experience—Republicans’ rejectionism under Obama—that controlling just the House of Representatives is enough do serious damage to a president. And while Democrats might not get Medicare for All through Congress, they could shift the conversation about health care in America, such that replacing Obamacare with a universal, government-run program becomes a serious consideration.

Law professor Jedediah Purdy, writing recently in Dissent, proposed a radical agenda for Democrats:

For one, we need substantial redistribution, starting with marginal tax rates at the 70 percent levels that lasted until the Reagan-era cuts of the 1980s. For another, we need entirely new institutions of planning and social provision, such as universal family leave and child care to help make the economy more humane, family life less exhausting, and get closer to gender equity. We might also have to do much more to strengthen labor unions, to the point of considering radical measures such as mandatory unionization, which is often the only way to break management’s hold on labor in large firms. It could also mean a new dispensation of basic legal rights, such as granting residents, rather than only citizens, the right to vote.

In short, Purdy is calling for Democrats to over-promise. In a Twitter thread about the article, Ian Millhiser, an editor at ThinkProgress, noted the challenges of implementing such an agenda.

The problem is that, the reason why Democratic leaders cannot deliver on these kinds of ambitious policies—even when they have control of all the elected branches of government—is, well, the fact that democracy is in decline,” he wrote. Even when Democrats win the presidency or Congress, “they have to overcome a slew of veto points—the filibuster, congressional committee structure, a Supreme Court dominated by Republicans whose majority is increasingly willing to embrace made-up legal theories in order to strike progressive laws. And all these obstacles create a negative feedback loop with left-leaning voters. Dems don’t want to over-promise, so they run uninspiring campaigns to avoid lying to voters about what they will be able to accomplish. And even if they do win, they are unable to deliver the sort of change that Jed describes in his piece, and what they can deliver is compromised within an inch of its life. Which causes voters to think of Democrats as sellouts and wimps.”

The solution is “constitutional hardball”—that is, to violate norms in a legally acceptable way. Millhiser calls for Democrats to kill the filibuster when they return to power and Scott Lemieux, writing in The New Republic, argued that Democrats should consider “packing” the court: adding Democratic-friendly justices to the nine-member court. “Court-packing is bad, but allowing an entrenched majority on the Supreme Court to represent a minority party that refuses to let Democratic governments govern would not be acceptable or democratically legitimate, either,” he wrote.

Damon Linker, a centrist columnist at The Week, is horrified by these ideas, writing that “our system of government is designed to allow the opposition to throw a wrench into the gears of government. The proper response to that situation isn’t to find a way to override the blockage. It’s to find a path forward that commands greater consensus. If that can’t be done, the result may be paralysis. That’s bad. But not as bad as one side in a deeply divided nation ramming through its policy preferences over the strong opposition of nearly half the country, which would be an outcome guaranteed to produce a civic disaster.”

But Trump’s America is already a civic disaster, with millions of non-conservative Americans, indeed a majority of the population, alienated by Trump’s governance. Political polarization is a reality, one that has to be worked with rather than wished away with lofty rhetoric about building consensus.

If they accept the reality of a polarized America, Democrats will have to adjust their politics depending on the balance of power. If the Republicans have unified control of government, as they now do, Democrats will need to rely on popular protests and the courts. If the Republicans control one branch of government and the Democrats another, the proper course is using the constitutional powers of checks and balances. If Democrats control the presidency but not both houses of Congress, then the Obama (and Trump) approach of maximizing executive power makes sense.

But the real difference is if the Democrats win unified control of government. To do that, they too may have to over-promise. And if the voters accept their promises, the Democrats have to be relentless in tactics to achieve as many of their promises as possible, including using the nuclear option to end the filibuster in the Senate and packing the courts. These moves will be resisted by Republican politicians and centrist pundits alike, but they will have the desired effect of changing the political landscape.

Linker wrote that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s bid to pack the courts in 1937 “ended in defeat and humiliation.” The truth is more complicated. While Roosevelt failed in his attempt to expand the court to include more liberal justices, the prospect of court-packing changed how the existing court voted. They were much more reluctant to overturn New Deal policies.

Roosevelt understood that voters want concrete outcomes. Trump is no Roosevelt, but he realizes that political power is based on making bold promises and trying to deliver them, even at the cost of violating norms. It’s a lesson Democrats must re-learn if they want to grab the country back from Trump’s grip.