WASHINGTON — When Donald Trump first took office, many conservatives' greatest fear was that he would be too quick to cut deals with the Democrats. He had previously been a Democrat and had staked out heterodox positions on everything from spending to entitlement reform, the national debt, the minimum wage, trade and health care. During the 2016 campaign, Trump even endorsed universal health care, declaring, "This is an un-Republican thing for me to say I am going to take care of everybody [and] the government's gonna pay for it." Conservatives were aghast.
They need not have worried. Democrats showed little interest in negotiating bipartisan bills with President Trump. They preferred to be the "resistance." And their unrelenting opposition pushed Trump to the right. He knew that whatever he was going to get done, he would have to do it with Republican votes. So, he governed as a staunch conservative.
But that is not his place of natural equilibrium. In his heart, Trump is a dealmaker, not an ideologue. And now, he's making clear that he wants to cut deals with Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-California.
It was overshadowed by his confrontation with CNN's Jim Acosta, but during his post-election news conference, Trump made clear that he is willing — even eager — to buck House Republicans and work with Pelosi and the new Democratic majority. On health care, for example, Trump stunned Republicans when he said he would be willing to support a bipartisan bill that passes with Democratic votes. "We'll get the Democrats and we'll get the Republicans, or some of the Republicans," Trump declared. That's a remarkable statement. The president would sign a health-care bill that gets a majority of Democratic, but not Republican, votes.
Similarly, on taxes, Trump announced he was willing to revisit the terms of his signature legislative achievement — his tax-reform law — in exchange for a middle-class tax cut. Asked whether he would be willing to raise rates on corporations and the wealthy, Trump said, "I would absolutely pursue something even if it means some adjustment." That's a huge concession to the Democrats.
Indeed, Trump even said it was better that Democrats won control of the House because it frees him to negotiate. "If the Republicans won — and let's say we held on by two, or one, or three — it would've been very hard," Trump said, " because there will always be one, or two, or three people that, for a good reason or for a bad reason, or for grandstanding come over and say, you know, 'Look, we're not going to along with this.' " With Democrats in the majority, he said, "we have a much easier path, because the Democrats will come to us with a plan for infrastructure, a plan for health care, a plan for whatever they are looking at, and we'll negotiate." Translation: Now I can tell the House Freedom Caucus to take a hike and compromise with Democrats instead.
The big question: Will House Democrats take him up on it? If they start firing shots at Trump, focusing on investigations and impeachment, he's going to fire back. But if they accept his outstretched hand, they will find he's willing to give Democrats a lot of things they want — even over GOP objections.
Trump hopes Pelosi becomes House speaker, because he thinks Pelosi will be less interested in impeachment and more interested in deals. "She deserves it," he said at his news conference, adding, "If she has a problem, I think I would be able to very easily supply her the necessary votes" to become speaker. He knows Pelosi will serve for only a few years and wants to secure a legacy. She wants to pass an infrastructure bill, fix and permanently secure Obamacare, and modify his tax cuts. And he seems willing to work with her to do all that. If anything, Pelosi's challenge will be to control her own ideologues who want to use their newfound power to destroy Trump, not work with him.
But if Democrats are willing to make concessions, such as funding the border wall, they will find that Trump is willing to buck conservative orthodoxy and make major concessions to them. Indeed, if they play their cards right, they can rack up wins on everything from health care and taxes to infrastructure and even immigration.
But to do that, Democrats have to decide: Are they now a governing majority? Or are they a resistance? Because they can't be both.
The Washington Post Writers Group