What should we make of Donald Trump’s deal with the Congressional Democrats and their leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi to grant aid to the victims of Hurricane Harvey, temporarily to raise the debt ceiling, and put off for three months the annual battle over financing the federal government? Should those of us who supported the president as a candidate because we thought he would drain the swamp and make America great again worry if he seems to be pivoting to cooperate with those who in fact repudiate the principles on which Trump ran, and who have always swum happily in the swamp?
Politics, as we used to say, makes strange bedfellows, and if Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell cannot deliver on Mr. Trump’s legislative priorities, should he be faulted if, when it comes to achieving a short-term goal, such as providing for those hurt by a natural disaster which no one anticipated, he turns to those who actually do seem ready to help?
There is a long tradition in this country of log-rolling, building creative coalitions, and, indeed, putting pragmatism ahead of ideology. In one of the most striking acknowledgements of this tendency, the great suffragette, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a brilliant, fiery and determined late nineteenth century feminist, explained that in her effort to get votes for women, “if the Devil steps forward ready to help, I shall say good fellow come!”
There is, of course, some risk that Mr. Trump, like so many principled people, when they come to Washington, may succumb to Potomac fever, and, instead of nobly pursuing the interests of those who sent him to the nation’s capital, adapt to a culture of mutual back-scratching, nest-feathering, other clichéd forms of corruption. Still, politics is the art of the possible, and the possible is secured through flexibility and finesse. Put slightly differently, while President Trump ran proudly as a non-politician, politics as practiced for centuries in this country, and every other, is about compromise, coalition building, exchange and incremental progress.
It is, in short, about deal-making, and this, as President Trump has made clear, is what he believes is his strength. This appears to be conceded even by his critics, as, for example Jen Psaki, former Obama administration State Department spokesman who observed, quite possibly struck by the Schumer-Pelosi-Trump arrangement, “President Trump has made no secret of his love of deal-making, once saying on Twitter (where else?): ‘Deals are my art form. Other people paint beautifully or write poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals. That's how I get my kicks.’” It is no coincidence, then, that the best-known book of candidate Trump is “The Art of the Deal.”
The three-months that this particular deal has bought the Republicans in Congress to work on tax reform, immigration reform (including a legislative mandate regarding the DREAMers), infrastructure, and other legislative matters offers them the opportunity to work with the president to accomplish the goals on which he secured his election. Those goals — border security, reducing regulation of business, and returning sovereignty to the American people themselves by appointing judges faithful to the original understanding of our Constitution and laws — are those of the members of the president’s party, and they should now seize the opportunity the president has brought them to move forward on their accomplishment.
If they fail to do that, in the manner that they failed to succeed in reforming and replacing Obamacare, the president appears to be beginning to realize, he may simply have to form a coalition of like-minded Republicans and Democrats and use his deal-making talents, if not to form a new party, then at least to break through the gridlock that he and the Congressional Republicans were, after all, elected to eliminate. Those who aid him in that effort are likely to find themselves still serving with him, but those who continue to let partisanship or ideology blind them are likely to find themselves, in 2018, out of office.
Many members of the media, many Democrats, and almost everyone in the American Academy have continually underestimated this president, viewing his unorthodox means of social communication, his earthy and unsophisticated style as somehow reflecting a lack of substance and intelligence. Curiously, his critics have failed to grasp that while he has firm notions of what it will take to, in his phrase “Make America Great Again,” he is not a creature of party, of ideology, or of special interests, as are, unfortunately, so many in the nation’s capital. What appears to some to be incoherence, inconsistency, and ineptness may simply be a form of subtle negotiation and strategy heretofore unseen in our time. The “Art of the Deal,” after all, is to work toward achieving the end you seek, using whatever means are at hand.
Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law, the Legal Affairs Editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and a contributor to The University Bookman. He graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and has taught at Rutgers University, the University of Virginia, and University College, London. He has often testified on constitutional issues before committees of the United States Congress, and is the author of "Recapturing the Constitution: Race, Religion, and Abortion Reconsidered" (Regnery, 1994) and "Law Professsors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law" (West Academic, 2017). To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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