Democrats’ Dilemma: Working With Trump May Make Him More Popular

  • Leaders eye deals on highways, trade while assessing defeat
  • Danger zone is 10 senators running in Trump states in 2018

Liberals wanting scorched-earth opposition to Donald Trump aren’t finding it so far from congressional Democrats who hope to work with the president-elect on some of his top agenda items.

Senate Democratic leader-in-waiting Chuck Schumer said Sunday that party members will fight "tooth and nail" on issues they care about, such as not taking away people’s health insurance and preserving Dodd-Frank financial rules. Yet the party is talking up a pragmatic approach to working with Trump on other matters including infrastructure and trade, contending Trump is closer to Democrats on some issues than he is to Republicans.

But giving Trump a big early win would come with a risk: Democrats might help make him more popular.

"It could solidify his strength and give him more standing, not just to get re-elected, but to pursue all these other issues such as deportation or deregulation on climate issues that the party doesn’t have any stomach for," said Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University.

There also is an early backlash against the idea of normalizing Trump.

"A sentiment for a lot of Democrats is that you have to have boundaries of what’s permissible and not, and you can’t legitimize this president that way," Zelizer said.

Political Map

But Democrats, particularly in the Senate, face a political map ripe for Trump to exploit.

Democrats have 25 seats up for re-election in 2018, including five in states Trump won by double digits -- West Virginia, North Dakota, Montana, Missouri and Indiana -- and another five in states he won more narrowly: Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. Only eight Republican seats will be on the ballot.

Senator Joe Manchin, who represents Trump-loving West Virginia, has been the Democrat most eager to work with the president-elect, saying he intends to reach out to Trump while rejecting other party members’ attacks on the Republican.

"I just want something done. I just want to get out of this toxic quagmire that we’re in and move forward," Manchin said. "I’m going to try to do everything I can to make this place work."

Bernie Sanders

And it’s not just moderates who want to work with Trump and reject the obstructionist approach pursued by Republicans after President Barack Obama took office. Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, who caucuses with Democrats, said last week at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast that he sees opportunities to raise the minimum wage, renegotiate trade deals and reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act’s Depression-era banking restrictions.

Sanders also has sharply criticized Trump’s infrastructure plan, though, as a "scam that gives massive tax breaks to large companies and billionaires on Wall Street." Instead of enacting a "corporate giveaway," the government needs to directly fund roads, bridges and other public works, he said in an article posted Monday on his website.

In a statement Friday, Sanders warned people not to expect Congress to be able to defeat Trump’s agenda.

“It will be defeated when working people throughout our country -- black, white, Latino, Asian-American and Native American -- demand a government and economy which works for all, and not just the 1 percent,” Sanders said.

Former Representative Henry Waxman, who served in the House from 1975 to 2015 and was one of its more influential Democrats, said that while Democrats can look for some opportunities to work with Trump, they’ll do best if they stand united against him.

Fight for Principles

"Democrats have got to fight for the principles we believe in," said Waxman, now chairman of Waxman Strategies, a Washington lobbying firm. "That means not taking away health insurance for millions of Americans, not eviscerating the safety net and to hold Republicans accountable for the policies they’ve advanced, like giving tax cuts to the wealthy at the expense of lower-income people."

While Schumer faced no opposition for his leadership post, House Democrats must decide whether they need a different agenda, different messengers or a better messaging operation.

They are embroiled in a rare fight over the future of the party, with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi facing her toughest challenge since losing the speaker’s gavel in 2010. Opposing her for the top spot is Ohio Representative Tim Ryan, who says the party can’t win the majority with the same leadership team.

Some Democrats see an economic stimulus plan focused on infrastructure as a win-win -- they could get more construction and more jobs they have long pursued, while splitting Republicans, many of whom are frosty to the idea, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Common Ground

On Thursday -- sitting in a chair next to Vice President-elect Mike Pence -- Pelosi again made a point of telling reporters, "We had a straightforward conversation about how we can work together on infrastructure, issues that relate to child care and the rest."

"That’s what the American people want us to do, is find ways to revive our economy, improve American lives, enhance the security of this nation," Pence said.

“We will try to find our common ground where we can,” Pelosi responded. “And of course, stand our ground when we can’t.”

Speaker Ryan prefers spending cuts and knows he must deal with other House conservatives who will outright oppose added spending, even though it now has the Trump seal of approval.

Earmark Ban

But not all House Republicans hold that view, and some are already angling for lifting a ban on earmarks, in anticipation of getting their favored local projects into spending bills. This might be headed to a showdown next year as Congress grapples with the nation’s debt limit.

Most Democrats, meanwhile, back Trump’s plan to scuttle the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Obama’s 12-nation Pacific Rim trade deal that wasn’t ratified by Congress, and to seek to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. Trump’s plans to threaten massive tariffs on imports will be a harder sell.

Representative Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat, said the trade issue, more than any other, could hold the key to reconnecting the Democratic Party to voters it lost in Rust Belt states. The party should take heed that a billionaire from New York swept past them on this issue, she said.

"Congress has been comatose on this issue for over three decades,” she said. “Democrats have to meet the president-elect halfway to create a new trade model for this country" that rewards workers and keeps jobs in the U.S.

There could be a silver lining for Democrats from collaborating with Trump: a divided GOP.

Representative Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, predicted the Republican Party will be at war with itself by the 2018 midterm elections.

"Trump was grafted onto the Republican Party as an alien being, anyway," Connolly said. 

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