Trump is sending a message to GOP congressional leaders to get their act together, by letting them know they are not the only game in town.
In the last week President Trump has done what many considered impossible, reaching deals with congressional Democratic leaders Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on the debt ceiling, government funding and hurricane relief. The trio also opened a dialogue on immigration policy to protect Dreamers as part of a border security package.
It is an astounding turn of events, considering how bitterly Democrats have opposed every aspect of Trump’s presidency. Left-wing critics accused Schumer of raising the “white flag” shortly after the election when he said he would try to work with Trump on areas of mutual interest. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., faced a fierce backlash last month when she innocently asserted that Trump could be “a good president” if he could “learn and change.” This was not the bitter language of the black-masked, pink-knit-capped "Resistance."
However, it is the language of grownup politicians. There was a time when bipartisanship was considered a value in this country. The spirit of compromise is hard-wired into the Constitution. The system of checks-and-balances and overlapping powers grinds to a halt when politicians dig in their heels. Governing strictly by ideology has never been successful in America.
Making bipartisan deals does not have to mean unilateral surrender by either side. Ronald Reagan achieved his signature first-term legislative achievements working with liberal Democratic House Majority Leader Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, D-Mass., an old Boston pol who knew something about horse trading. The relationship was contentious at times, and neither side got everything they wanted; but Reagan was able to reach favorable deals on the tax cuts and military budget increases that were the centerpieces of his agenda. Economic boom times followed.
Trump’s supporters initially believed that the current president would have a much easier time pursuing significant legislation, given Republican control of the House and Senate. Voters had every right to expect rapid progress. Last January, the GOP House leadership announced a 100-day agenda that included action on Obamacare, tax reform and infrastructure. But 235 days later the Obamacare repeal has failed, tax cuts are elusive and the infrastructure bill is jammed up. If the president was forced to deal with Democrats because of an inept Republican leadership, so be it.
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A Rasmussen poll showed that Americans approve of Trump’s bipartisan outreach by a commanding 50-point margin, with Republicans especially supportive. This indicates that voters are tired of partisanship and naval-gazing, and want to see cooperative action. Congressional approval ratings remain mired in the teens, and Republican support in particular has plummeted since last spring. You would think that congressional leaders, all of whose rankings are well below Trump’s, would get the message. Apparently only the Democrats have.
Granted, the opposition does not have Trump’s best interests at heart, any more than Tip O’Neill was all-in for Ronald Reagan. Schumer and Pelosi are willing to deal when it serves their interests, but would turn on the president in a second given the opportunity.
Trump is under no illusions either. There are significant limits to how much the president can accomplish through working with the other side. But reaching out to Democrats is the art of the deal in action. The White House is sending a message to Republican congressional leaders to get their act together, by letting them know they are not the only game in town. It remains to be seen whether the majority caucus can focus on the job they were sent to Washington to do. It is strange indeed when the GOP is becoming the resistance.
James S. Robbins, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and author of This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive, has taught at the National Defense University and the Marine Corps University and served as a special assistant in the office of the secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @James_Robbins