The President has decided that enough is enough. Until a few weeks ago, he relied on Republican leaders in the Senate and House—majority leader Mitch McConnell and House speaker Paul Ryan—to convert his wish list into legislation. They assured him they could do so relying solely on Republican votes. That sounded plausible to the newcomer to Washington: Republicans have a 240-to-194 margin in the House and 52-48 margin in the Senate. In the event, McConnell could not deliver a Senate majority to repeal-and-replace Obamacare. Meanwhile, in the House, the hard-right 33-member Republican Freedom Caucus refuses to commit to support his tax-cut program, and is unlikely to do so if the plan threatens to increase the national debt, which it most likely will.
The president had visions of a year coming to an end with no accomplishments to provide material for his tweets. Yes, share prices continue to break records, providing still more income for top earners. And yes, middle-class incomes are on the upswing, as more and more people find jobs and the portion of Americans below the poverty line declines. For all of which the president overcomes his natural modesty to take credit. But there have been no legislative victories.
So back to his roots. Trump started life as a Democrat and a financial supporter of New York senator Chuck Schumer, who is now leader of Senate Democrats. Trump became a Republican because the party’s infrastructure would be handy if he could gain control of it by besting 16 other candidates, which he did.
Remember “low-energy” Jeb Bush, “Little Marco Rubio . . . all talk and no action,” “Lyin’ Ted Cruz”—all stunned victims of Trump’s, er, unorthodox campaign? And having disposed of Hillary Clinton (who is now on a nationwide tour identifying the myriad people responsible for her loss: Russians, the director of the FBI, Barack Obama, the Constitutional provision for an electoral college), Trump used his inaugural address to attack both political parties, “a small group in our nation’s capital [that] has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.”
Furious at the failure of the Republican establishment to deliver, the president launched a vitriolic tweet-attack on McConnell—“very disappointed in Mitch,” he should “get back to work,” and, borrowing from an old playbook, “no energy.” Trump then decided to show that his displeasure can go beyond mere tweets.
Meeting with the leaders of both parties on hurricane relief and the extension of the debt ceiling, Trump was presented with significantly different plans. He immediately decided to adopt the Democrats’ approach, to the consternation and not inconsiderable embarrassment of the leaders of what they thought was “his party.” Nancy Pelosi later said that the president and Schumer, both being from an outer borough of New York City, “speak New York,” a language apparently alien to her and her far-left San Francisco constituents for whom the world consists of ideological red lines they would never consider crossing. Not for them the Art of the Deal.
Nevermind that Trump took Schumer’s first offer—billions for relief of hurricane victims and a three-month extension of the debt ceiling. That’s what he did when buying the Plaza Hotel at a price that soon produced bankruptcy. Most pundits think he got rolled, but Trump was eager to make his point with the Republicans: “No more Mr. nice guy.” He will now try to get his tax plan through with bipartisan support, some of it to come from Democrats who will be standing for re-election next year in states that he won handily.
So pleased was the president with press reaction to his bipartisanship that he called his new best friends, Chuck and Nancy, to share his joy. And had them to dinner last Wednesday, during which they agreed to a deal to legalize the status of the “DREAMers.” Or at least that’s what Schumer and Pelosi said.
Not so fast, said the president on Thursday morning: “If there’s not a wall, we’re doing nothing [on DACA].” Democrats must agree “not to obstruct the wall . . .” when votes on its funding come up. Trump’s concern: Kindness to the DREAMers now can encourage a new wave of young people to pour across our border later in the hope of similar leniency. Trump’s core voters and perhaps the exiled Steve Bannon must have gotten to him while he was watching Fox News after dinner. And Schumer’s core probably got to him. His morning-after comments included him saying, “We made clear we’d continue to oppose it [the wall] . . . a medieval solution for a modern problem. A Game of Thrones idea for a world that is a lot closer to Star Wars.” Not much room for a middle ground between guest and host.
The real test of future comity will come when the happy trio meet to talk about taxes. Trump needs tax reform to stimulate economic growth, and believes a cut in corporate taxes from a statutory rate of 35 percent to 15 percent would provide just such a stimulus. But even his Treasury secretary thinks so deep a cut is unattainable without driving up the nation’s soaring debt, which is unacceptable to the Freedom Caucus. Speaker Ryan is targeting somewhere around 23 percent to 25 percent.
Trump is even willing to raise taxes on “the rich” in order to get a deal with the Democrats. Whether the Chuck and Nancy team can, in the end, commit to any deal without antagonizing the Democratic base is uncertain. The most contentious subject so far is the inheritance tax. Trump wants it repealed; Democrats demand it be retained. Its ideological significance outweighs its fiscal importance. It is paid by only a bit more than 5,000 estates, and then only by “morons” incapable of tax planning, according to Gary Cohn, Trump’s principal economic adviser. Schumer and the Democrats say that repeal “abandons progressivity” and “would explode the deficit for the benefit of handful of millionaires.”
There will be more differences to bridge. Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, worries that Trump’s plans to reduce the tax burden on pass-through businesses (generally smaller businesses) will favor the wealthy. Some Democrats want major international corporations that receive tax cuts to induce them to repatriate earnings stashed overseas and invest the funds in infrastructure projects.
So even the nation’s negotiator-in-chief might not be able to convert the flirtation with his new pals into the enduring bipartisan relationship that Americans earnestly desire.
Or say they do. Only 8 percent of Democrats approve of Trump, and Pelosi professes to be “worried about his fitness for office.” Not much basis for enduring détente, it seems, especially if at the next meeting the president downgrades the Chinese take-away he served at the dinner á trois to the McDonald’s hamburgers and fries he prefers and often serves on Air Force One and at Mar-a-Lago.