After eight frustrating months in office, President Trump seems to be confronting a long-overdue question: Does he want to govern the country? Or does he want to sink deeper into a feckless cycle of tweets and tantrums that capture cable news ratings but make little impact on how people live?
One small sign that Trump actually wants to be more than a glorified circus performer: his decision to work with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer on a hurricane relief bill that also raised the debt limit and funded the government for three months.
“I think we will have a different relationship than we’ve been watching over the last number of years. I hope so,” exulted the president, who then invited the two Democrats to dinner. “I think that’s a great thing for our country. And I think that’s what the people of the United States want to see ... They want to see coming together to an extent.”
Yes, that is what many Americans want to see, but extreme caution is necessary here. So far, Trump has done precisely the opposite, using incendiary issues -- illegal immigrants, transgender soldiers, ultra-right marchers -- to drive wedges through the electorate, energize his supporters and demonize his opponents. “Coming together” is absolutely the last idea to animate Trump’s White House.
Moreover, the president has repeatedly proven to be an impulsive and even reckless leader, with no compass to guide him beyond the gorging of his gargantuan ego. In eight months, he has totally squandered the most valuable commodity in public life: goodwill. Few politicians trust Trump. And why should they?
“He is a politician driven by the latest expression of approval, given to abrupt shifts in approach and tone,” writes Peter Baker in the New York Times. “He is a man of the moment, and the moment often does not last.”
Still, if Trump actually sees his deal with the Democrats as a model for future bargains, perhaps some hard truths about life in the capital are starting to get through.
Republicans formally control both houses of Congress, but their leaders don’t command a clear governing majority in either body. With only 52 Senators, the GOP cannot break most Democratic filibusters, and some of their more pragmatic members are quite willing to act independently -- as they did in rejecting the repeal of Obamacare.
In the House, Republicans have a 46-vote majority, but 40 or so members of the hardline Freedom Caucus have for years now thwarted any leaders who try to engage in the negotiations and compromises that governing requires.
Outside Capitol Hill, Trump has failed to expand his political base. His favorable ratings hover below 40 percent -- 38 percent in the latest Gallup poll -- and on many other questions, his reputation is even more damaged. Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson reviewed a batch of surveys and concluded that only “about 1 in 4 voters is with him no matter what.”
That’s the number who “strongly support” him, trust “all or most” of what he says, approve his use of Twitter and think he acts “in a way that is fitting and proper for a president,” she wrote in the Washington Examiner.
Their backing was enough, barely, to defeat a deeply flawed Democratic campaign. It’s not enough, not nearly enough, to govern the country. So what happens now?
The hurricane funding bill was an easy lift, but if Trump is serious -- a huge “if” -- several other problems could lend themselves to bipartisan solutions. Responsible legislators, encouraged by Republican governors, are drafting legislation to shore up the insurance marketplaces created by Obamacare. Promoting that rescue effort, which Trump derides as a “bailout” for insurance companies, would be a good start toward “coming together.”
Then there are the “Dreamers,” about 800,000 young people brought here as children who are now job-holding, tax-paying patriots. Trump could facilitate legislation that protects them from deportation, a move that would truly be, in his words, a “great thing” for the country. Another “great thing” would be for the president to embrace a consensus effort on Capitol Hill to expand federal funding for biomedical research through the National Institutes of Health.
None of this will be easy. Left-wing Democrats are deeply committed to “resisting” Trump at every turn. The president’s base could be outraged by some of his deals, like protecting the Dreamers.
But Trump should at least try “coming together.” Pulling the nation apart, his operating philosophy for the last eight months, has been a complete disaster.