Julian Zelizer: Trump has a chance to make good on promise to defy Washington norms
President-elect will need to work on achieving the bipartisan deals that eluded Obama
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 also is the co-host of the podcast “Politics & Polls.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Donald Trump loves to imagine himself as the best dealmaker in America. But many Democrats are not buying it. When they look at the new White House, they see little room for finding common ground. The President-elect ran a campaign that was antithetical to their party values, in addition to, they believe, consistently lying and spreading falsehoods. And now he has assembled a right-wing cabinet, which makes many Democrats’ skin crawl.
One option for Trump is to simply ignore the Democrats altogether. Given that he has a united government, and since Senate Democrats can no longer filibuster non-Supreme Court judicial and cabinet appointments, there will be strong incentives to do so. He can put aside all his campaign rhetoric about wanting to break through Washington’s gridlock and just govern from the right. (Notably, the Republicans are also now in control of 32 state legislatures and 33 governors, and they will be defending far fewer seats in the 2018 midterm elections than Democrats, so Trump’s conservative mandate could be even greater if he so chooses.)
But if he wants to make good on his promise to defy Washington convention, he should adequately address partisan polarization. In other words, Trump should channel his inner dealmaker and try to achieve the kind of bipartisan deals that eluded President Barack Obama, despite his high approval ratings.
What could he do?
The most important policy statement that the incoming administration could make would be a clear and firm commitment that it will not do anything to compromise Social Security and Medicare, two signature measures for the Democratic Party. While Trump promised several times on the campaign trail that he had no interest in touching these popular programs, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has been making noise that he wants to go after these policies. If Trump takes a stand right now, stating that he will not support Ryan’s proposals, he might win some Senate Democratic support for his cabinet appointments.
But this would not be enough. He needs to show with his feet, and not just his mouth, that he is serious about making deals. The most important step that he could take is to allow Democrats to present a new version of an infrastructure stimulus that would create jobs and boost spending for blue collar and middle class Americans.
Trump’s current proposal doesn’t please many Democrats since it would primarily provide tax relief to private contractors as a means of lowering the cost of financing the program, not offer public jobs to America’s workers. Meanwhile, Senator Bernie Sanders, has offered a plan of his own, revolving around $1 trillion in direct spending on projects. Letting congressional Democrats do the initial drafting work on a bill, and then making a deal from within the framework that they establish would be appealing, even for opponents who fundamentally don’t trust him.
The final step Trump could take to build some goodwill with Democrats would be to join the bipartisan drive to investigate whether Russia launched a cyberattack during the presidential election. Thus far, Trump’s reaction has been almost entirely defensive. He has questioned the intelligence agencies producing this data, and he has distanced himself from Republicans like Senator John McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham who are demanding immediate and swift action.
But Trump can still reverse course, demonstrating to Democrats that he is serious about protecting America’s political institutions and throwing his support behind the establishment of a select committee to investigate Russian interference. President Obama has now put new sanctions into place as a retaliation for Russia’s actions. Rather than just saying it’s time to “move on” from the hacking scandal, he can demonstrate that he is serious about using sanctions – peace through strength – until there are assurances that Russia will desist from engaging in these kinds of attacks again.
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The odds of Trump doing any of these three options are low. From the moment he won the general election, he has towed the Republican Party line – except on the issue of Russia. He has done little to appeal to Democrats, and he has only continued with the incendiary partisan rhetoric of the campaign.
But when it comes to Trump, one can never make assumptions. Perhaps in the lead up to the inauguration he will want to show that some of the skills he is always boasting about can actually be put into effect. That would be the biggest surprise of all.