Can Trump Triangulate?

Upon the news of Pres. Trump siding with Democrats on a short-term debt ceiling increase, The Federalist’s publisher, Ben Domenech, declares: “The Pivot Is Real, And It’s Spectacular.”  I like a good Seinfeld allusion as much as anyone, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it just yet.

Don’t get me wrong.  Ben may well be correct.  And there would be a fair amount of schadenfreude in it for me.  I always thought that the “burn it down” faction of the GOP didn’t realize that Trump wouldn’t stop burning it down if he got elected.  I always thought Trump supporters were foolish to back a man so likely to return to his NYC Democrat roots.

I thought in July that we were entering the “Let Trump Be Trump” phase of the administration.  I thought as far back as February that the triangulating Bill Clinton was one example of how a heterodox Trump presidency might function.

In short, if Ben is correct it would confirm many of my priors.  But one function of this sideblog is for me to challenge my priors.  And in this instance, there are a number of reasons to question whether those priors ultimately back Ben’s thesis.

First, the “pivot” theory would seem to assume that Trump’s move on the debt ceiling is part of some actual strategy.  But Trump is an improviser, with very little sense of strategy.

The main reason to think Trump’s chumminess with the Dems might be more than a one-off is not that Trump is executing some pivot (see, e.g., Trump’s many failed pivots to being presidential).  Rather, the reason to potentially take it seriously would be that Trump is not pivoting so much as reverting to type.

And reverting to type was the approach I thought Trump was attempting with hiring Anthony Scaramucci as White House Comms Director.  That the Mooch never officially served in that capacity illustrates the potential difficulties of executing on a “strategy” of Letting Trump Be Trump.

Second, the theory overlooks the fact that the GOP leadership was blindsided by Trump’s move.  Going forward, Trump loses the element of surprise in similar situations.  Implicit in Ben’s argument is that leadership will accept what Trump dishes out.  In fairness, history would suggest this is likely.

But Ben’s further claim that Trump wins a popularity contest against the GOP Congress and its leaders (a theme Ben to which returns this morning )strikes me as possibly missing the point.  Within Congress, it may be true that the GOP caucuses are less high on Sen. Maj. Ldr. Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan than they have been in years.  OTOH, it may also be true that Trump’s problem is broader than with leadership.

Off Capitol Hill, the calculation cannot be limited to Trump being more popular to McConnell, Ryan, or Congress generally.  Trump has to maintain — and expand, probably — a national coalition, while legislators need only be popular with their more local constituencies.  And unlike, McConnell or Trump critic Sen. Jeff Flake, most legislators probably remain more popular with their voters than Trump.

Moreover, Trump is more popular nationally than McConnell or Ryan, but fighting with them may cost Trump soft GOP supporters at the margin.  Ben is right to assert that Trump is much stronger than the Congressional GOP, but he’s still a guy who eked out an Electoral College victory and currently sits at record low levels of job approval.

Trump can’t afford to lose anyone on net, and whether triangulation picks up a Dem or Indie voter for every GOP voter he loses is an untested proposition.  The argument for triangulation is that he needs to do something to reverse his eroding job approval, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that triangulating is the something that does it.  Bill Clinton got re-elected, but by another plurality in a three-way contest that hurt Clinton.

Third, the calculus of whether dealing with Dems helps Trump change is also greatly affected by the subject of the deal.  Trump’s debt ceiling move is a crappy deal, but I wouldn’t expect him to suffer much for it directly, as budget process stories make people’s eyes glaze over.  And even if things go smoothly for Trump in December, when the next round of votes would be due, the result is largely that disasters get averted, and the “win” is quickly forgotten.

Those are the direct effects.  The indirect effects of Trump’s raging idiocy are to give Democrats further leverage on an immigration bill, and perhaps on tax reform as well (esp. with the House Freedom Caucus drafting their own plan and venting at Ryan, per usual).

Ben’s theory is that “the path of popularity for him, is to dismiss the demands of Congressional Republicans on virtually everything except abortion, judges, education, free speech, and regulations. ”  I haven’t asked Ben whether omitting tax reform from that list was deliberate; I suspect it was, and defensibly if debatably so.  But going left on immigration would be a yuge gamble for Trump.  And going left on healthcare (which won’t go away as an issue, even if the GOP wishes it would) would seem like a similar gamble with the grassroots.

[Aside: Ironically, the “burn it down” crowd has been flaying GOP leadership as RINOs for years by being just rebellious enough to force leadership to cut budgetary deals with Congressional Dems, calling it “failure theater.”  But if Trump cuts a deal with his pals Chuck Schumer & Nancy Pelosi, it’s political genius, or something.  And Lou Dobbs still picks Ryan as the RINO in this scenario.]

The difference between so-called process issues and substantive policy likely also matters on the Dem side.  Again, the casual Dem likely doesn’t know or care much about process, absent a government shutdown or other “crisis” situation.  And those Dems who understand how Trump got rolled yesterday, both directly and indirectly, are laughing, not complaining.

But Jonathan V. Last fairly notes that on issues of policy, it may be far more difficult for Congressional Dems to be seen as making deals with Trump.  Ben responds that vulnerable Dems like Heidi Heitkamp may be open to deals (assuming they calculate they won’t draw a primary challenge), but he may be overestimating the number of votes he can get that way on various issues, which would constrain Chuck & Nancy’s ability to deal.

Fourth, as I’ve noted previously, heterodox presidencies can go poorly and their fate may be more dependent on external circumstances supporting them.  Most of Bill Clinton’s triangulation was either on issues where he expressly campaigned as heterodox (NAFTA, welfare reform), or occurred after the GOP won Congress in 1994.  Dems understood Clinton as acting to preserve the party’s priorities: Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment (the ME-ME internal formulation of his 1996 campaign).

Here, Trump going left on spending is something arguably within his campaign mandate, while (as noted above) an immigration bill Dems support is probably outside it.  Whether a tax reform bill that gets Dem support is acceptable to the GOP grassroots is more of a “the Devil is in the details” question.  Ben’s suggested issue matrix for retaining a level of GOP support may or may not suffice.

Unlike Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter alienated a Congressional majority of his own party and suffered for it.  The culmination of that dysfunction was Ted Kennedy’s primary challenge in 1980, a classic sign of a dangerously weak presidency.  A triangulating Trump might avoid a Carter-esque fate if he chose his issues carefully, the economy continues to perk up and he doesn’t blow foreign policy (as Carter did with respect to Iran and Russia/Afghanistan).  But we –and Trump — have no way of knowing how those latter two factors turn out.

Lastly (for now), there is a potential ripple effect that in other circumstances might be small, but are potentially large regarding Trump’s political future.  In the current environment, the theory is that Trump will rely again on negative partisanship to drive any re-election campaign.  If Trump jumps into bed with Chuck & Nancy too often, and gets plaudits from the evil media for doing so, it will become more difficult to paint his eventual opponent as a terrorist in a Flight 93 scenario.

Running substantially against GOP dogma won Trump the GOP nomination in 2016.  But it also made him one of the weakest nominees and candidates in modern political history.  Most re-elect campaigns are referenda on the incumbent.  Intentionally dividing your own party in that context may be different than doing it in the 2016 context of a “change” election against a historically weak opponent.

In sum, it’s possible to see how Trump might succeed in theory through triangulation.  The dysfunction of the GOP Congress helps provide a rationale for it.  But it requires a President capable of acting deftly and strategically.  And Trump is someone torn between his NYC Dem roots and his reflexive resort to massaging the ids of his core supporters.  So practice may diverge from theory.

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