Donald Trump won the Presidency not only by appealing to the Republican Party’s core conservative constituencies, but also by winning the support of many blue-collar workers who had marked ballots for Democratic Presidential nominees in the past. Trump did this by running as a populist insurrectionist candidate whose appeal ran beyond traditional Republicans who champion tax relief, increasing defense expenditures, and nominating conservatives to federal judgeships.
Like most Congressional Democrats, Trump calls for renegotiating trade agreements such as NAFTA, increasing the minimum wage, and dramatically increasing infrastructure spending. In addition, Trump favors providing paid maternity leave for new mothers.
While Congressional Democrats will likely fight Trump over federal judgeships, increases in military spending, and tax cuts, the Democratic Party will probably be an ally in getting much of Trump’s agenda through Congress. Trump will assuredly need the support of Democrats, and will likely experience antagonism from Congressional Republicans. Trump might have to build coalitions of almost all Democrats while picking off some moderate Republicans. His chief antagonists could be the leadership of the Republican Party and the conservative intelligencia.
Trump would not be the first President to have to rely on support from the opposing party while fighting his own. Theodore Roosevelt hailed from the progressive bloodline of the Republican Party. When he was President from 1901-1909, both parties harbored liberal and conservative bloodlines. The conservatives in the GOP believed that the Federal Government should be a limited-purpose entity. Their moniker was “standpatter.” U.S. House Speaker Joe Cannon (R-IL) was a firm standpatter and was often at loggerheads with Roosevelt. Roosevelt got support from progressives in both parties over the steadfast objections of Cannon and his conservative Congressional coefficients. Yet Roosevelt forged a bi-partisan coalition to shepherd the Antiquities Act through Congress, which gives the President authority to create national monuments on public lands. Cannon remarked: “not one cent for scenery.” Cannon also opposed Roosevelt’s efforts to reduce tariffs.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, like Trump, was a convert to the Republican Party. Also, like Trump, Eisenhower was to the left of many members of his party’s Congressional caucus.
Eisenhower fought efforts by some in his party to lower the highest tax bracket, which was 91%. Eisenhower ignored their pleas, averring: “We cannot afford to reduce taxes, reduce income, until we have in sight a program of expenditure that shows that the factors of income and outgo will be balanced.” In addition, Eisenhower worked with Congressional Democrats to reallocate funds from military spending to foreign aid over the objections of conservative Republicans.
Like Trump, Eisenhower entered the Presidency with his party in control of both Congressional chambers. Eisenhower developed a largely harmonious relationship with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson (D-TX) and House Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-TX). The trifecta worked in unison to shepherd the Civil Rights Act of 1957 through Congress against a coalition of conservatives in both parties.
Along these same lines, Johnson, as President, launched a legislative assault to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through Congress. He effectuated a coalition of moderate and liberal Democrats and Republicans against unswerving opposition from Southern conservative Democrats and Western conservative Republicans.
Ironically, as Johnson escalated U.S. troop counts in Vietnam, he relied on support from conservatives in both parties to support its continued funding. He did this while members of his own party, including Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-MT), voiced opposition to the U.S. role in Indochina.
There is a similitude between Trump and Jimmy Carter in that both started their role as outsiders. Carter had served just one term as Governor of Georgia. Carter won plaudits by telling crowds he was “untainted” by Washington. Also, like Trump, Carter was not in lockstep with his party. Carter had won the Democratic Presidential nomination by appealing to the center, while most of his opponents competed for liberal voters.
As President, Carter focused on fiscal austerity, inflaming the Democratic base that wanted more social spending. He proposed scrapping many projects he branded: “pork barrel projects,” inflaming liberal members of his own party. In addition, Carter nominated tight money exponent Paul Volker as Chairman of the Federal Reserve. Furthermore, with Republican help, Carter signed legislation deregulating the finance, communications, and airline industries. He also began the post-Vietnam Cold War military buildup that was continued by Ronald Reagan. Defense spending increased from 4.7% of GDP to 5.2% of GDP. Carter also began funding for the MX missile project.
House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-MA), an unreconstructed Democrat, was sometimes at odds with Carter. In 1980, O’Neill became indignant when Carter conceded the Presidential election earlier than any major party Presidential nominee since Democrat Alton B. Parker in 1980. This depressed turnout on the West Coast, and likely resulted in Democratic voters staying home, culminating in the loss of Congressional seats. O’Neill mocked Carter’s image as an outsider, lashing out at a Carter staffer: “You guys came in like a bunch of jerks, and I see you are going out the same way.”
Bill Clinton worked with a Republican Congressional leadership to pass NAFTA, Welfare Reform and the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. The Democratic Leader in the House, Richard Gephardt (D-MO), opposed all these initiatives. Contrariwise, this legislation mustered the support of the GOP Congressional Leadership.
Like Carter, Trump won the nomination and the Presidency not by embracing his party’s establishment, but by running against it. He did not immediately endorse U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan in his bid for re-nomination in his Wisconsin Congressional District. Trump declared: “I’m just not there yet” before eventually endorsing Ryan over his long-shot primary challenger Paul Nehlen. Ryan offered only tepid support for Trump, and did not campaign with him, declaring: “We need to support our entire ticket.” Trump tweeted that Paul Ryan was “weak and ineffective.” Many other Republican leaders distanced themselves from Trump after a tape revealed Trump joking about sexually assaulting women by dis-endorsing him.
In politics, there are no permanent allies or permanent alliances. Politicians may work together on one issue, while working against each other on another issue. This is a rule Trump would be wise to follow. He can work with Democrats on passing much of his domestic agenda, while working against them on issues where they disagree.
Trump did not get elected as part of the Republican establishment, and few Republicans were elected on his coattails. In fact, many Republicans refused to endorse him and spent much of their campaigns distancing themselves from Trump’s actions and oratory. The majority of the country still views Trump unfavorably. Accordingly, it might be in Congressional Republicans self-interest to show independence from Trump.
For Democrats to take control of the Congress in 2018, they need achievements to tout to their constituents. Trump needs achievements to take to these same voters should he run for re-election in 2020. He also needs to deliver for the disaffected voters who supported him. Trump and Congressional Democrats share a mutual interest to work together where they agree to rack up bipartisan achievements on the political scoreboard.
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