Ted Cruz has every right to feel vindicated. In January 2016, as he tried unsuccessfully to stop Donald Trump’s march to the Republican presidential nomination, the Texas senator presciently argued that his rival, a pragmatic dealmaker, would find it just as easy to work with Democrats as Republicans. “If, as a voter, you think what we need is more Republicans in Washington to cut a deal with Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, then I guess Donald Trump’s your guy,” Cruz warned.
What Cruz and other conservatives feared -- a “flexible” president -- is exactly why some mainstream Republicans, like Bob Dole and Chris Christie, rallied around Trump. In an age of gridlock, the promise of Trump was that he wasn’t beholden to a fixed ideology or party orthodoxy, and thus might strike agreements that a more conventional politician would flinch from. In theory at least, Trump had the potential to be a Republican Bill Clinton, skillfully triangulating between the two parties to create unexpected policy victories.
It took some time for Cruz’s prophesy to come true. In the first eight months of his presidency, Trump governed as a partisan Republican, giving the GOP a hard-right Supreme Court justice in Neil Gorsuch and pushing to fulfill GOP promises like repealing Obamacare. But as the party’s legislative agenda has floundered, Trump’s relationship with the Republican Congress has soured. This might explain why Trump has made an unexpected stab at triangulation.
Faced with the perennial debt ceiling problem, Trump shocked Washington on Wednesday by agreeing with Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, and Pelosi, his counterpart in the House, to fund the government and raise the debt limit for three months while also providing aid for Hurricane Harvey victims. To call this a “deal” would be generous, as Trump gave Democrats exactly what they had sought. The agreement keeps the debt ceiling issue alive ahead of next year’s midterm elections -- giving Republicans ample time to shoot themselves in the foot with infighting over government spending -- and provides Democrats with leverage in future negotiations on key issues like granting legal status for DREAMers.
Trump’s decision to side with the Democrats makes a certain strategic sense: The debt ceiling is the rare issue where Democrats have actual leverage, because it requires 60 votes in the Senate rather than a simple majority. Still, to go along with all of the Democrats' demands wasn’t necessary. In fact, it seems like the height of bad negotiations from the self-anointed master of “the art of the deal.”
Trump’s fellow Republicans were livid. Politico reports:
"In the aftermath, Republicans seethed privately and distanced themselves publicly from the deal. ...
'A three-month debt ceiling? Why not do a daily debt ceiling?' cracked Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho). 'He’s the best deal-maker ever. Don’t you know? I mean, he’s got a book out!'"
One senior GOP official, speaking to Axios, put it in simpler terms: “He (screwed) us.”
The debt ceiling deal is only one of several recent cases where Trump has decided to pick a fight with the Republican Congress. In setting a six-month expiration date for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the Obama-era program that protects young undocumented immigrants from deportation, Trump called on Congress to come up with a fix.
Forcing such a divisive and difficult issue on his congressional colleagues was a hostile move. Meanwhile, Trump has spoken about making a deal with “Chuck and Nancy” to help the DREAMers. Trump also traveled to North Dakota, where he spoke with Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, whom he praised as a “good woman.” This is not a move that is likely to warm the hearts of Trump’s fellow Republicans.
If Trump is pursuing a policy of triangulation, it’s more motivated by spite than strategy. As The Daily Beast reports, Trump’s speed in agreeing with Schumer and Pelosi was “in part ensured by his resentment toward Republican leaders, who Trump views as hostile, insufficiently loyal and impotent. It was well-known within the White House that President Trump, going into the meeting, was ‘not looking to do (Ryan and McConnell) any favors,’ as one White House official put it.”
Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo notes Trump’s well-known propensity for displays of dominance and humiliation. “Clearly Trump felt that McConnell and Ryan are not serving him well enough or loyally enough or both,” he wrote. “So he lashed out or tried to damage them. Schumer and Pelosi were simply the most convenient cudgels available.” Simply put, it’s Trump’s way of showing he’s in charge.
Whatever Trump’s motives, his triangulation tactics aren’t likely to get him very far. While he can work with the Democrats on temporary measures like raising the debt ceiling or financing emergency relief, there’s not enough common ground on other issues for cooperation. Trump’s preferred approach to infrastructure spending (public-private partnerships) is at odds with Democratic orthodoxy. On both infrastructure and trade, the Trump official most likely to work with the Democrats (Steve Bannon) has left the White House. Those that remain are more wedded to conventional Republican politics, like tax cuts for the rich and slashing the social safety net.
While the ideological gap with the Democrats is too wide, Republicans are too divided to pass major legislation on their own, as they proved on health care. So instead of leading a resurgence of bipartisanship, Trump more likely opened the door to further chaos. Congressional Republicans have protected Trump in the Russia investigation because they thought they could work with him on issues like tax reform, but now that he’s operating as a free agent, they may well feel empowered to revolt. Rather than triumphing with a successful Clinton-esque triangulation, Trump might be facing not one but two hostile parties, thereby accelerating the breakdown of government.