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The real reasons Trump can’t work with Democrats

President Donald Trump sits in the drivers seat of a semi-truck as he welcomes truckers and CEOs to the White House in Washington, DC, March 23, 2017, to discuss healthcare.
Jim Watson | AFP | Getty Images
President Donald Trump sits in the drivers seat of a semi-truck as he welcomes truckers and CEOs to the White House in Washington, DC, March 23, 2017, to discuss healthcare.

Donald Trump says he is looking for ways to work with Democrats these days. His team has floated the notion of working with the Congressional Black Caucus on infrastructure matters, and told the Financial Times that if the Freedom Caucus remains aloof "we will make a deal with the Democrats" on health care.

There is also a large caucus of protectionist Democrats in Congress who'd be eager on the merits to see Trump fulfill some of his campaign pledges on trade.

Yet there's precious little sign of this strategy happening. And, indeed, there's precious little sign that it will happen — in part because an atmosphere of partisan hostility serves Trump's interests.

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Trump won a primary election by criticizing the Republican Party establishment, adopted a set of heterodox policy stances that sometimes poached centrist and left-wing ideas along with hard-right ones, and won a general election without much in the way of formal support for the institutional Republican Party.

Under the circumstances, attempting to govern as a less-partisan figure than Barack Obama or George W. Bush who is more interested in making cross-aisle deals seems like a natural possibility. It's an approach Trump clearly rejected in the first couple of months of his administration, trying to pass a health care law on a party-line basis and putting forward a hard-right budget proposal copied more or less directly from the Heritage Foundation website.

"Democrats who might, in fact, be interested in working with Trump on various issues on the merits don't see a way into the door that wouldn't just result in them being used for a quick photo op or a press release."

Despite the White House's various suggestions of bipartisan cooperation to the press, there's been no substantive engagement with the other party. And there's little sign that will change. Trump will continue to pick up the votes of red-state Senate Democrats, especially on energy issues, but no bipartisan flowering is going to come. To the extent that bipartisan legislation gets done — as may well happen on a continuing resolution to keep the government funded after April — it will be through the congressional process rather than the White House.

Trump doesn't have the juice, the credibility, nor the incentives to get big deals done across the aisle.

Trump is too dishonest and disorganized to be credible

All politicians have been known to fib here and there, but Trump lies to a degree that's essentially unprecedented in American politics. Not only does he say things that aren't true, he routinely mischaracterizes his own policy proposals. At times, his administration seems to suggest that foreign governments and members of Congress should completely ignore the president's actual statements in favor of relying on the pronouncements of James Mattis or Nikki Haley as a guide to America's real foreign policy, or of Mick Mulvaney and Tom Price to understand its real health care policy.

Whatever the merits of this haze of uncertainty as a pure political marketing strategy, it completely poisons the environment for negotiations.

If you happen to be a Senate Democrat who faces a strong political incentive to be seen as cooperating with the White House, this opens the door for something like Joe Manchin's February meeting, after which he said Trump told him he was open to a comprehensive immigration reform deal. But Democrats who might, in fact, be interested in working with Trump on various issues on the merits don't see a way into the door that wouldn't just result in them being used for a quick photo op or a press release.

Trump loudly pledged that the Keystone XL pipeline would be built with American steel, then his administration quietly clarified that it actually wouldn't be, but he keeps saying it anyway at public events. There's little point in engaging with Trump on the substance of an issue if he's comfortable just pretending to agree with you and then pursuing a contrary policy.

Trump doesn't know about policy

As Vox's Andrew Prokop writes, Trump's lack of knowledge of or interest in American public policy was evident during his botched efforts to negotiate support for the American Health Care Act. His "lack of comfort in discussing the bill's details — to the point where it wasn't even clear he understood what it did — was widely apparent, and it hurt his efforts to sell the bill to reluctant Republicans in Congress."

The exact same issue exists when discussing matters with Democrats, except the greater gap in underlying perspectives and lower level of ambient trust makes it an even bigger problem.

To negotiate a deal on modifying the Affordable Care Act, Trump would need to demonstrate some understanding of what it is that Democrats didn't like about AHCA and also some understanding of what motivated Paul Ryan to craft the bill the way he did. Trump hasn't done either of those things and doesn't seem to want to. Nor has he demonstrated any real grasp of what House Republicans' proposed Destination-Based Cash Flow Tax amounts to or why one might or might not support it.

To have a discussion with Democrats centered around, for example, former Obama administration economist Jason Furman's framework for bipartisan business tax reform, Trump would need to understand what Furman is saying and how — and, crucially, why — it differs from what Paul Ryan is saying.

Trump isn't popular

Trump's approval rating is more than 10 points underwater, which means that most Democrats have little incentive to work with him.

A handful of Democratic Party senators up for reelection in 2018 represent states that are so deeply red that they need to play nice even as the president is unpopular overall. But Democrats from Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin aren't running scared at the moment, and Democrats from states that Trump narrowly lost, such as Nevada, Colorado, and New Hampshire, certainly aren't.

Instead, most Democrats are running scared of their own base, which both hates Trump and has been primed by a steady stream of articles about populist authoritarianism abroad to believe that Trump is currently in the process of destroying the institutional foundations of American democracy.

On top of that, of course, there's the Russia factor, which has badly eroded Trump's basic legitimacy in the eyes of many rank-and-file Democrats. Collaborating with Trump is, under the circumstances, a risky move that most Democratic members would rather avoid.

Partisan conflict helps Trump

Speaking of Russia, Trump suffers from a number of political weaknesses that are essentially off the main axis of ideological conflict in the United States.

One important such weakness concerns his curious affection for Vladimir Putin, which was seemingly reciprocated during the 2016 campaign by Russian hacking and disinformation efforts. Trump has sought, with no small measure of success, to turn the investigation into these matters into a partisan food fight, in which the real issue is a "crooked scheme" cooked up by the lame duck Obama administration.

Trump and his family are also enmeshed in a number of financial conflicts of interest that congressional Republicans have turned a blind eye to in a way they clearly would not if we were talking about a Democratic administration.

This dynamic — and the constant dismissals of "fake news" that sustains it — is only viable in an atmosphere of fierce partisan conflict. As political scientist Julia Azari has written, Trump's political fortunes are tied to the odd pairing of "weak parties and strong partisanship," where the GOP is institutionally weak enough for a celebrity to impose himself on an unwilling party elite, and then the sentiment of partisanship is strong enough to ensure he receives their backing.

One could imagine a very different kind of outsider businessman-turned-president governing as a cross-party dealmaker. But you'd need someone whose ethics were, if not entirely beyond reproach, at least solid enough to withstand exacting scrutiny so he wasn't dependent on any particular congressional faction for support. And precisely because he'd be operating outside of a normal partisan context, he would need to be well-informed and credible to seek out areas of common ground and rise above petty differences.

Trump can, to an extent, play that character on television. But he's a long way from being the real deal.

Commentary by Matt Yglesias, a writer at Vox. Follow him on Twitter @mattyglesias.

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