Julian Zelizer: If Democrats cut deals with a Trump presidency, they will be sending a dangerous message to their constituents
Since Trump's campaign was premised on hate, Democrats must keep a safe distance
Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He is the co-host of the podcast, Politics & Polls. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
A fight has broken out among congressional Democrats about how to respond to President-elect Donald Trump. Now that the dust from the election has started to settle, there are two contradictory arguments about what the strategy should be in the coming months.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose populist campaign rocked the Democratic Party, indicated he would work with Trump if the President-elect was serious about pursuing policies that take on corporate power and benefit working Americans. Sanders is not alone. According to The New York Times, Sen. Charles Schumer has spoken with Trump several times and next week plans to announce a series of initiatives, like infrastructure and mandatory paid maternity leave, they can work on together. In essence, at least on paper, these Democrats are willing to “normalize” the Trump presidency and pursue the possibility of bipartisan compromise should that be offered. Even President Obama, acting in the role of a statesman, has made a series of statements since the election urging Democrats to give Trump a chance. “I don’t think he is ideological, I think ultimately he is pragmatic in that way and can serve him well as long as he’s got good people around him and he has a good sense of direction.”
Other Democrats are not biting. Still feeling the heat from the election, they insist that Donald Trump is more dangerous than your “normal” Republican politician. His views on many issues, including immigration and gender, are so far outside the regular political spectrum that it doesn’t make sense for their party to try to compromise. His appointment of Steve Bannon as a senior adviser is an outrageous and unacceptable move that brings the voices of the alt-right into the highest levels of power. Rather than offering an olive branch, Democrats like the retiring Sen. Harry Reid are calling on their colleagues to stand firm against this president. “We have a responsibility to be the voice of the millions of Americans,” he tweeted, “who are afraid that they are unwelcome in Donald Trump’s America.” This is not time, they say, to play nice.
The danger of compromise
What to do? The danger with too much talk about compromise is that Democrats will fall into the same trap that President Obama faced in his first two years in the White House, when Democrats controlled both the House and Senate yet the administration wanted to see if bipartisanship was possible. During those crucial years, the President continued to reach out his hand to Republicans in Congress only to have them bite it in return. He continually bargained against himself, only to find that most Republicans had no interest in reaching deals.
Right now there is no reason for Democrats to believe that Donald Trump will refrain from pursuing a fairly radical political agenda. With united government and a rightward GOP, he will be under intense pressure to move forward with the most radical elements of his agenda: a draconian immigration crackdown, rolling back regulations on climate change, regressive tax cuts, deregulating the financial sector, harsh national security measures targeting Muslims and more. As Politico reported, bankers are pretty optimistic from what they are seeing in the transition that this White House will be extremely friendly to them. House Speaker Paul Ryan is planning to move forward with plans to privatize Medicare.
Trump’s announcement of his first three major appointments – Sen. Jeff Sessions to be attorney general, Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn to be national security adviser, and Rep. Mike Pompeo to head the CIA – were all indications that the Trump from the campaign trail is the Trump who will be president. Sessions, who a Republican Senate refused to confirm for a federal judgeship in 1986 because of his personal comments on race, is an opponent of civil rights laws and an advocate for cracking down on the rights of immigrants, legal and illegal. He was one of the first to defend Trump’s remarks on the “Access Hollywood” tape.
Flynn has a long paper trail of making blistering and radical statements about Muslims, even supporting candidate Trump’s call for a temporary ban on their entry into the United States. At the Republican convention, he joined the crowd in calling for Hillary Clinton to be “locked up.” Pompeo was a driving force behind the Benghazi investigation.
Even if there is a chance Trump is serious about an infrastructure package that would help provide jobs, Democrats would have to be willing to give the Republicans a major policy victory – that would help to cement some of the coalition that Trump built with disaffected white voters – with the knowledge they would help him in advancing the rest of his policies.
There are also many questions being raised by Democrats about the kind of package Trump is thinking about. As Ronald Klain wrote in The Washington Post, the plan consists primarily of unfunded tax cuts for investors and contractors, and its not at all clear how many jobs this will actually create. Working with Trump, as if he was just any Republican president, would also help give him legitimacy in the public mind. Given the kind of campaign he has run, which included the themes of xenophobia, sexism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, this is a high risk maneuver. If Democrats are serious that they see no place for these ideas at the political table, that some things must remain out of bounds in American politics, then starting to cut deals with Trump – with someone like Bannon by his side – will send a dangerous message that will be impossible to erase.
As Jamelle Bouie argued in Slate, “The simple truth is that Trump’s use of explicit racism – his deliberate attempt to incite Americans against different groups of nonwhites – was integral to his campaign. It was part and parcel of his ‘populism’ and told a larger story: that either at home or abroad, foreigners and their ‘globalist’ allies were cheating the American worker, defined as a white working-class man with a factory job.” Supporting Trump’s infrastructure plan, Bouie writes, “legitimizes and gives fuel to white tribalism as a political strategy.”
The obstructionist and confrontational approach might be less palatable; it certainly does not sound as good in public and will put Democrats in the uncomfortable position of doing exactly what they didn’t think Republicans should do. But sometimes there are pivotal moments when a party needs to take a strong and principled stand. In this case, there are practical reasons to do so, avoiding a deal with the president of a coalition prepared to strip away the most basic elements of their agenda. But more importantly, the party needs to make a decision about entering into any kind of an alliance with a politician whose ideas and arguments were so antithetical to every ideal that the party has been fighting for over the past few decades. While some Democrats might worry about how this would “look” to the public, they should remember that it didn’t look good for Republicans to be obstructionists and they now have control of the White House, Congress, and 34 state legislative bodies.
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Nor do Democrats need to engage in the kind of scorched earth obstructionism that we have seen with the GOP. They can keep funding the government, raising the debt ceiling and confirming justices and reasonable Cabinet appointments, though they should be willing to ask tough questions and oppose picks that don’t seem acceptable. But what they don’t have to do is start working with the Republicans on their legislative agenda; they can also keep the White House on the defensive through oversight and investigation if there is any evidence of wrongdoing or abuse of power.
Democrats are at the crossroads. Before jumping into the traditional celebration of bipartisanship, Democrats need to be thinking carefully about whether these are really normal times and what the costs can be of making a decision to work with President-elect Trump.