Trump's Hyper-Partisan 2017
Remember when President Donald Trump was going to exploit the vulnerability of Democratic senators from red states and entice them to vote for his agenda? On Wednesday, the Senate passed the Republican tax-cut plan without a single Democratic aye. It wasn’t an anomaly; party-line votes are a mainstay of the Trump era.
Ten Democratic senators are up for reelection in 2018 in states won by Trump. These are the Democrats who were poised to work with Trump not just on an imagined infrastructure bill but on taxes and opioids, deregulation and energy. A handful of Democrats represent carbon-energy-producing states: How hard could it be to get their votes?
“I was an easy pickup. Very easy pickup,” Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a state that Trump won by 42 points, told Politico. “And a couple, two, three other Democrats would have been easy pickups, if they had just made an effort.”
Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri represents a state that’s only been getting tougher for Democrats. Back in January, she seemed to be signaling her readiness to work with Trump. “Our country does its best work in the center,” McCaskill told a town hall last summer.
Why Trump wasted the opportunity to enlist McCaskill and the others is an important question. Trump had powerful reasons to court Democrats. A plurality president who had lost the popular vote by almost 3 million votes, he was historically unpopular in the country and despised by the guardians of democratic norms and government ethics in Washington.
His frequent appeals to racial resentment may have powered his 2016 campaign, but they put him on the downside of electoral demographics: He will face a browner electorate in 2020 than he did in 2016. A couple of Democratic supporters could have provided a little extra cover for his sins and stumbles.
Yet instead of working to become less polarizing, Trump has become more so. The stunning victory of Democrat Doug Jones in the special Senate election in Alabama was largely due to a spectacularly bad opponent. But it also underscored how uncompelling Trump’s agenda is even in a die-hard conservative state.
Paul Maslin, Jones’s pollster, said the campaign was mostly able to sidestep Trump altogether. “I don’t think it ever occurred to [Jones] or us to consider being more supportive of Trump,” Maslin emailed. “We were simply never going to engage Trump on any terms — supportive or not.”
While government-by-mood-swing may explain much of Trump’s style, it doesn’t explain his consistent partisanship. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made no effort with Democrats either, which suggests that the cause is not incompetence.
Middle-class tax cuts, infrastructure spending and other Trump campaign promises could have lured susceptible Democrats, at least occasionally, into a GOP-led majority. Instead, Republicans focused on rewarding GOP donors, undoing whatever Barack Obama had done and appealing to the party's resentful base — all while sanctioning Trump’s personal money grubbing. There was nothing in that mix for any Democrat.
“The drive to please the party base has been in place — certainly among the Republicans — for some time,” said George Washington University congressional scholar Sarah Binder in an email. Binder points to President George W. Bush celebrating his narrow victory in 2004 by launching an unpopular partisan effort to privatize Social Security. “Why move to the center — or why accommodate the other party’s interests — if the rewards at the ballot box are delivered by turning out the base?”
For Obama and Democrats, mostly party-line votes on a post-financial-crisis economic stimulus plan, Dodd-Frank bank regulations, an auto-industry rescue and the Affordable Care Act were worth the political pain. It seems that Trump and his party have reached a similar conclusion about their transfer of wealth from tomorrow’s taxpayers to today’s plutocrats.
It’s hard to view Trump’s failure to co-opt Democrats as anything but intentional. He had the opportunity to split Democrats — moderates working with Trump would’ve driven the left insane — and protect himself, by advancing popular legislation. Trump is frequently out of his depth, but he knew what he was doing here. There was no point in recruiting Democrats to a presidency they were sure to gag on.
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Jonathan Landman at firstname.lastname@example.org