Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University, a CNN political analyst, New America fellow and the editor of “The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment,” a book that Princeton University Press plans to publish this March. He’s also the co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. Follow him @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
President Donald Trump walks away from a turbulent week with a major political victory in the form of a massive deal that raises military and domestic spending caps by $300 billion, giving both parties many items that they have been looking for, and raising the debt ceiling until March 2019.
It followed a wild spell for the stock market that left investors rattled and a brewing scandal over White House chief of staff John Kelly’s decision to keep Rob Porter, who has since resigned, on the job despite serious accusations of spousal abuse.
Getting this bill done is a huge step for President Trump. He can claim to have achieved bipartisan support around the budget, an issue that has tied up Washington for years. And now Democrats enter into the final round of the legislative negotiations this month over immigration with almost no leverage at all.
Taking the spending threat off the table is extremely important. Democrats, who are the minority in the House and Senate, don’t really have that many tools at their disposal that they can use in trying to stop the Republicans from moving forward with their agenda. Right now, President Trump controls the show.
As congressional Republicans showed under President Barack Obama, spending is one of the only areas where the minority can tie up deliberations to the point that presidents are forced to negotiate with them. With the budget debate resolved for the near future, including a two-year agreement on the debt ceiling, Democrats are left with virtually no muscle, at least until the midterm elections.
Trump will now be able to boast about the one thing that doesn’t take place often in the town of Washington: bipartisanship. With this budget deal, President Trump demonstrated that he can go up against the Freedom Caucus that controls the House, walk away with a victory even when they oppose him and also win over Democratic support. Seventy-three Democrats voted in favor of the bill in the House, while in the Senate, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer worked in cooperative fashion with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to get this done.
Despite the nativism, the racism, the xenophobia, sexism and simply un-presidential behavior that has come out of this White House, a significant number of Democrats are still willing to vote for a deal and to work with the President. Both parties will exit this battle with a greater sense of fear about what President Trump can accomplish on the Hill. This will weaken his opposition.
Although 67 House Republicans voted against the bill, overall Republican support for the President remains strong. The Republicans have accepted that President Trump is the titular head of their party and most will work with him to get bills done. Some of the votes against the spending bill from Freedom Caucus Republicans surely were cast in the context of their knowing that Democratic votes would push this through anyway.
The next item on the agenda is immigration, and here, President Trump really has the potential to control the terms of the debate. Democrats enter into this debate in a terrible fix. The President will put on the table an extremely difficult choice.
If Democrats want to reinstate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, and protect the Dreamers from being deported, they need to agree to an extraordinarily restrictive and reactionary set of policies that will close the borders to millions of others and end the liberalized immigration policies that the nation has had on the books since 1965.
Gone is the hope to achieve the kind of grand bargain on immigration – which would have provided a path to citizenship for millions living here without authorization and with uncertain futures – that Presidents George W. Bush and Obama had hoped to achieve.
Now, Democrats may have to settle for the reinstatement of DACA in exchange for giving right-wing, hard-line Republicans almost everything else they want. Even if some conservatives say no to DACA, the budget bill shows how Trump can build a coalition without them.
Without being able to threaten the administration on the budget, the only real threat that Democrats now possess is to kill an immigration deal that includes DACA. The problem is that President Trump can live with that; they can’t.
A trifecta of legislative victories – the tax cut, the budget deal and potentially an immigration deal – would give President Trump a set of big talking points as he starts to get ready for 2020. It is unclear whether any of this will help the GOP in the midterm elections, where there is still considerable evidence of losses for the party, as to be expected in midterms, but for his presidency, the achievements are starting to add up.
More than the corporate tax cut, which was low-hanging fruit for a Republican government, the budget deal is the kind of legislation that any president would be happy about. And Democrats should remember that even if they take control of Congress in 2018, Trump can end up using the Congress as a foil to build his own support, just as President Bill Clinton did with the GOP after 1994.
Does this mean the dysfunction of Washington is over? Not at all. Does this mean that bipartisan love is going to break out on Capitol Hill? That is as likely as the Easter Bunny suddenly showing up in the House chamber.
Is President Trump going to abandon all the ideas and practices that have polarized, divided and dismayed large parts of the electorate? No. The real Donald Trump is never going away.
Get our free weekly newsletter
The President still faces many political challenges. The swings of the stock market are a reminder that the underlying economy can be volatile, as can the strength Trump gains from good economic news.
Nor will Trump be able to avoid doing and saying things that alienate and anger much of the population that still does not like him. And even as he creates confusion and doubts about the credibility of the Russia investigation, special counsel Robert Mueller is a formidable prosecutor who might potentially produce a damning report about the Trump campaign and this administration.
Still, the budget deal is further proof that the politics of this presidency have shifted. It is striking evidence that Trump is on much stronger ground and gaining a better feel for how to achieve victories that leave his opponents kicking and screaming without having much else they can do to stop him.