The word “deal” has a definition. It implies mutual benefit and reciprocity as a result of a negotiation. The arrangement to which Donald Trump agreed with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Wednesday was no deal because there was no negotiation. By all accounts, Trump took the first offer Democrats made to secure an unconditional hike in the nation’s debt ceiling for just three months in exchange for disaster relief—with no spending offsets.
For the “Never Trump” conservative right, this amounts to the confirmation of a theory: Donald Trump is a closet liberal. Not really. Trump is no conservative—he’s essentially admitted as much—but his ideological affinities are tenuous at best. He’s done some conservative things, and he’s done some liberal things. Where Trump-skeptical conservatives have a point is their contention that pragmatism untampered by principle is dangerous. That proposition is going to get a serious real-world test when Republicans and Democrats head back to the negotiating table on the debt ceiling in November.
For liberals, the moment is urgent. Donald Trump just proved his self-proclaimed capacity to eschew tribal politics and cross the aisle. This is nothing less than an existential threat to one of the few things Democrats of all stripes agree on: anti-Trumpism. They cannot allow Trump to undermine their only message. “Muslim ban, his budget, Trumpcare, Arpaio, Charlottesville response,” wrote Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden. “These are many things, but they are not liberal.” Conservatives would debate the alleged conservatism of some of these things, but you can understand the liberal political imperative of pinning these controversial episodes on conservatism. “He is literally the conservative movement made flesh,” film producer Jordan Horowitz told me. Unless you were in a vegetative state for most of 2015 and 2016, this amounts to a wish fathering the thought.
The liberal reaction explains why the “anti-anti-Trump” faction of the Republican coalition has chosen to celebrate the wisdom of Trump’s impulsive spasm. Writing in The Federalist, Ben Domenech is even more convinced of Donald Trump’s advantageous political position than Trump himself. “The path of least resistance, the path of popularity for him, is to dismiss the demands of Congressional Republicans on virtually everything,” Domenech wrote, save for a few priority items for social conservatives and constitutional originalists. “In almost every other way, he has the opportunity to govern like Bill Clinton and triangulate a path through this screwed up political system.”
Domenech is right; Trump is stronger and more popular than congressional Republicans. He’s wrong, however, to suggest that Trump “doesn’t need” his party’s congressional majorities.
What Trump did is not Clintonian triangulation. In Bill Clinton’s case, triangulation meant adopting as many aspects of his opponent’s position as possible without fracturing his core coalition not to advance the interests of his political adversaries but to undermine them. In the process, Clinton robbed Republicans of sources of political cohesion and coherence. “Hegelian in concept: the idea of a thesis, an antithesis, and a synthesis,” former Clinton advisor Dick Morris told PBS. By picking “a la carte” from the most popular agenda items of both parties, Clinton preserved his personal popularity.
Triangulation was a boon to Bill Clinton himself but not Democrats or the progressive agenda his party’s ideological reformers sought. But even Bill Clinton was cautious not to undermine his party’s leaders. He was under no illusions that Republicans would somehow be better stewards of his presidency than the opposition party. By contrast, Donald Trump has cut the legs out from under the Republican Party’s congressional leadership to no discernible end.
House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are surrounded by insurrectionary elements within their own caucuses. Managing the GOP conference is an exercise in herding cats. Buying time to negotiate a pro-growth tax code reform plan to mollify conservatives within the Republican conference frustrated over the lack of conservative reforms was the GOP leadership’s chief objective in negotiating a debt ceiling hike. Grumbling in the ranks is already deafening. Rumors of a mutiny are growing louder, and now leadership has no time to assuage the mutineers. Already thorny intramural GOP negotiations over tax code reform and, yes, health care reform just became that much more difficult. And Democrats won new leverage for themselves when the debt limit comes up again and their party’s votes are needed for yet another clean hike just one week before Christmas.
If Donald Trump thinks he can govern without Republicans, he’s going to be reminded rather quickly that the only thing that unites Democrats is the prospect of seeing him humiliated. There is no concession he could make, no position he could adopt, that would compel Democrats to abandon the only cohesive principle keeping the post-Obama Democratic coalition together. Schumer and Pelosi understand triangulation; they were witness to it firsthand. They will entertain the president it only insofar as it gives them the power to undermine Trump when it suits them.
Democrats will give the president all the rope he needs to hang himself, and the president seems not to see the trap into which he’s walking. Trump’s ego will outlast this presidency. The conservative agenda might not.