22 January 2018

The Democrats should do a deal with the Donald


One year into the Trump presidency, and the perfect function and dysfunction of the American system are on display simultaneously. Last week, the balance of power between the presidency and the legislature remained so balanced that it produced an impasse. The Senate Republicans could not agree amongst themselves on immigration, the Democrats could only agree to block the Republicans, and neither party could agree to the President’s demands.

Donald Trump, the least presidential of presidents, preemptively poisoned the debate by insisting that with immigration reform be bundled with funding for the fortification of America’s southern border. He then broke up a bipartisan meeting on an immigration deal, allegedly by insulting some of the countries from which immigrants might come.

By the end of last week, the 800,000 young people who entered the US illegally as children, and whose status was regularized by the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals programme (DACA), were running out of luck and time. So were nine million children in low-income families, beneficiaries of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), whose extension had been bundled into the negotiations. On Monday, the federal government ran out of money, and all “non-essential” federal employees had the day off work.

The message on the answering machine at the White House blamed the shutdown on partisan obstruction by Congressional Democrats. Chuck Schumer, a senior Democratic senator, said that the fiasco would be remembered as “the Trump Shutdown”. The voters, most of whom are already convinced that the Congress are non-essential employees, will remember the shutdown as a bipartisan failure.

The dysfunction lies in the fact that neither the president nor the parties want to punish the beneficiaries of DACA and CHIP. Trump cancelled Obama’s 2012 DACA order not just to appeal to the Republican base, or the small number of Republican senators who seem irrevocably opposed to compromise on immigration. Obama signed that order because a Republican-controlled Congress had blocked the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (the acronymous Dream Act). This was intended to be no more than a temporary fix; Obama hoped that a future Congress would legislate the matter. According to some experts, this fix was constitutionally dubious.

Today’s Senate vote for temporary funding of the government means that there is still time for the system to function correctly. The clock on an alternative to DACA will run out in early March. The paths to a possible compromise are clear — but so are the obstructions.

Before the Republicans’ defeat in the Senate last Friday, Donald Trump tweeted the possibility that a wall need only be built in the stretches of the southern border not already protected by natural obstacles. On Sunday night, Mitch McConnell, leader of the Senate Republicans, suggested that if the Democrats agreed to fund the federal government, he would permit a free Senate vote on the immigration bill.

The greater obstacles to compromise are the expense — an estimated $18bn for a wall along the full 2,000 miles of the border — and the Democrats’ commitment not to make any kind of deal involving funding for the wall.

Paradoxically, the alignment in last Friday’s vote does offer a path forward. McConnell’s offer to extend CHIP for six years persuaded four Democratic senators to support the proposed bundling of immigration reform and federal funding. The bill failed because five Republican senators, finding the bill too soft on immigration, went the other way and voted against their Senate leadership.

Donald Trump is the Disruptor-in-Chief. He was elected to change how things are done in Washington, and not the least of his eccentricities in office has been his determination to honor his electoral promises. The Democrats’ strategy of “resistance” has produced no legislative gains. It is tarring them as the Party of No—and, worse, as the party of hard-left grievance.

The splitting of party votes last Friday offers an alternative for the Democrats. By working with moderate Republicans, they can produce the legislation that the American public wants, and break the partisan stand-off that the public never wanted in the first place.

Last Friday, most Democratic senators grandstanded against Trump’s vulgarity, and collaborated with anti-immigration Republicans to block another bill. What if the Democrats had gone the other way, and sought a compromise that would have split a Republican Party susceptible to extremism in its Congressional ranks?

Trump appears to be set on securing enough funding for the southern border for him to claim that he has fulfilled his election promise. The rewards for the Democrats if they strike a deal on border funding are potentially significant. The Democrats will be the party whose actions saved the children of CHIP and the Dreamers of DACA—and in a year of midterm elections too.

As the countdown to November’s midterms continues, similar opportunities for constructive collaboration will arise. Trump wants big and expensive bills for repairing America’s infrastructure and modernising the military. And his failure to produce an alternative to ObamaCare means that healthcare reform will return to the agenda if there is a reasonable chance of a deal in Congress.

The Democrats, in the way of parties who have received an ideological shock in a general election, are doubling down. That didn’t work in Britain in the 1980s, when the Labour Party confused the personality of the messenger with the message that the voters were sending. Trump’s efforts notwithstanding, doubling down is unlikely to work in American now.

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 reflected deep popular dissatisfaction with the direction and running of the country, shutdowns and partisanship included. If the Democrats break the stand-off, they will show that they know how to govern, and are prepared to put the public interest ahead of party interest.

On Monday morning, a group of 20centrist senators from both parties met to discuss ways of securing a vote that would fund the government for another three weeks, and allow time for a deal on DACA and CHIP. When debate opened, Mitch McConnell’s tone was more moderate than it was last week. The vote passed with the support of 33 Democratic senators — and despite the opposition of two Republicans. When the lights go back on in Washington on Tuesday morning, the road to constructive governance remains open. But will the Democrats take it?

Dominic Green is the author of 'The Double Life of Dr Lopez' and 'Three Empires on the Nile'