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When Democrats Can Work With Trump, They Should

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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No, Democrats should not become the “party of no” during Donald Trump’s presidency.

Let me be clear: Democrats certainly will oppose much of what Republicans propose over the next four years. That’s natural, especially in an era of intense partisanship. But that’s not what folks such as New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait are urging as an out-party strategy. They are arguing that Republican rejectionism -- maximum opposition to the president and refusal to compromise as a strategy -- has been successful over the last eight years

The problem, as I explained before the election, is that the evidence for this strategy is weak. It doesn’t explain George H.W. Bush’s unpopular presidency, or Bill Clinton’s popular one -- or, for that matter, the ebbs and flows of Barack Obama’s popularity during his time in office. 

It’s true, as Chait says, that elite out-party support for the president can convince rank-and-file voters that the president is doing a good job. That is, as Chait says, the story of George W. Bush’s approval surge following the Sept. 11 attacks. But that example -- in which Democrats suspended criticism of the president across the board for a brief period and in which only one story was in the news anyway -- is just not helpful for extrapolating to the real decisions Democrats will face in 2017, which will involved compromising (or not) on occasional, probably second-tier policies. 

What’s the harm in Democrats emulating Mitch McConnell’s “no” strategy? 

For one thing, refusing to compromise means the out-party has no chance to influence policy. That’s fine if the only goal is winning the next election, but if a party cares at all about policy before then, there’s a real loss in rejecting compromise.

For another, knee-jerk rejectionism gives away the potential for the out-party to exploit internal differences within the president’s party. After all, while out-party criticisms can prevent the president’s approval ratings from spiking up, same-party criticism is far more effective in eroding the president’s popularity. So if Democrats can strike a few deals with Trump that anger some Republicans, it could easily hurt the president overall. And again, Democrats will launch plenty of attacks against Trump even if they also work with him on, say, an infrastructure bill.  

What’s more, while Chait is correct that congressional elections have now become quite dependent on national partisanship, it’s still very possible that positive publicity for Democratic incumbents can help them win re-election. That’s especially likely if the positive press comes from issues that are second-tier (or lower) nationally but perhaps very important in certain districts. 

But the most important reason for Democrats to avoid automatic rejectionism as a strategy is that it would harm their future capacity to govern themselves and the nation. 

It’s understandable, but deeply odd, that Democrats look at the last eight years (and the 16 years before that) and decide that what Democrats really should do is to be more like the Republican Party. After all, the Republican Party proved itself so dysfunctional that it wound up nominating a presidential candidate who has a thin attachment at best to the party’s platform.  And the party doesn’t seem especially ready to govern -- as can be seen in their professed need for additional years to figure out what they want to do on one of their top priorities, replacing the Affordable Care Act.

Democrats may believe their party can act the way Republicans have acted in opposition but still be just as ready to govern as they were in 2009. It’s unlikely. Working toward compromise, even if it eventually ends up futile, helps party legislators and party-aligned interest groups recognize what’s needed when they get the chance to act. And the effect on activists (and rank-and-file voters) of demonizing every proposal the president makes can be seen in how quick Republican activists are to turn on their own leadership.

Democrats don’t want to hear that they should engage with Trump and with congressional Republicans at all. Most of the time, they won’t, regardless of strategy, because the space between their policy preferences is just too large. But when they can engage, they should -- because it’s better for their party to do so.

  1. For what its worth -- probably not much -- public openness to compromise might also help paint Trump and congressional Republicans as radicals to any media (or voters) open to evidence on which side would be responsible for gridlock if Democrats successfully kill some measures by filibuster. 

  2. And, yes, while Trump (barely) won, he was still pretty clearly a very weak general election candidate, running behind the Republican House vote and sporting historically low favorability numbers. These things cant be proved, but it certainly seems likely that a mainstream conservative with normal experience would have won by a much greater margin, perhaps also leading to gains instead of losses in congressional elections.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net