If there is a Republican in Washington that Democrats would like to negotiate with on health care, it would probably be Susan Collins. The senator from Maine is comfortably moderate, hails from a heavily Democratic state, and, as it happens, supports an ObamaCare alternative that would let liberal areas of the country keep substantial parts of the existing law.
But what if there was another, more powerful Republican who might also be willing to preserve the popular elements of ObamaCare? One who is as likely as any Democrat to blanche at Congressional Budget Office scores that might show 15 to 20 million people losing coverage under the House replacement bill? One who will actually be in the room with the House Freedom Caucus, Heritage Action, and Americans for Prosperity?
That Republican is President Donald Trump.
In part because of the polarizing nature of the 2016 campaign, Democrats view Trump as incorrigibly right-wing. In fact, he is the least ideological president since at least Jimmy Carter, probably Richard Nixon.
Trump would almost certainly prefer to be remembered as a great bipartisan deal-maker, not the most conservative president in history. Even his address to a joint session of Congress was a jumble of Republican orthodoxy, Ivanka Trump liberalism, and talk about foreign policy and trade that would have gotten him booed off the stage at a GOP presidential debate just a few years ago.
But several factors have led Trump to mostly embrace the right when it comes to actually implementing policy. Republicans control both houses of Congress. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have an ally in Vice President Mike Pence.
And Pence-style movement conservatives are at this point the Republicans with the most relevant governing experience. Personnel, as the cliché goes, is policy. Trump has nominated, and Senate Republicans will confirm, a mostly conservative Cabinet.
Yet the most important dynamic is that Democrats want nothing to do with Trump. Yes, they have voted to confirm his more popular appointments. No, they didn’t shout “You lie!” as he spoke to Congress. Dealing with Trump is a dead letter among Democrats nonetheless.
This is despite the fact that with the right political incentives, Trump could probably be persuaded the Republican health-care bill doesn’t do enough for his working-class voters. Trump certainly has more in common with Rust Belt Democrats on trade than with most members of his own party. Trump and the Democrats could create a pump-priming infrastructure bill together.
It won’t happen. First of all, rank-and-file Democrats don’t want it. A February poll found that 56 percent of Democratic voters want their party’s leaders to obstruct Trump while only 34 percent want them to work together.
Democratic honchos like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer who have taken Trump’s campaign cash in the past and likely know they could cut deals with him in the present fear they would lose all credibility with their voters if they did so.
The progressive base in particular regards Trump as a unique threat to liberal values, a reactionary, fascist, and/or racist who must be resisted, not appeased. They see Stephen Bannon the way conservatives would react to a still-living Saul Alinsky serving as President Obama’s chief strategist.
Much of the contemporary American left is animated not by class and economics, where there is potential common ground with Trump, but by race, gender, and cultural identity. It is on these issues that Trump, with his restrictions on travel and immigration from six Muslim-majority countries, his loose talk about rapists coming illegally from Mexico, and his Nixon-era law-and-order rhetoric, is most offensive to liberals.
One progressive leader who has occasionally taken a wait-and-see attitude about working with Trump is Bernie Sanders, who energized the left with his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination last year. But even Sanders attaches conditions to his willingness to work with Trump. And he is out of touch with the left’s move away from class politics, one of the reasons he failed to attract minority voters in sufficient numbers and lost to Hillary Clinton.
Most of all, liberals are convinced they don’t need to negotiate with Trump. They think the president will be undone by his tweets, chaos, questionable competence, Russia scandal, and alliance with government-cutting Republicans.
In short, liberals believe his administration will fail and they will get a better deal with the Democrat who succeeds him. In the meantime, Paul Ryan is Trump’s main negotiating partner.