The question — after Democrats and the country did what they had to do on Tuesday night by taking control the House (and, for the first time in nearly two years, putting a real check on President Donald Trump’s ranting, raving, revolting rampage through our politics and our constitutional system) — is how and whether the self-described master of the “art of the deal” will be able to navigate the new political world into which he has been dropped.
After all, he ran in 2016 as a consummate deal-maker and has sporadically tried to project that image during his tenure in office. Remember the grand bipartisan confab he hosted at the White House to hash out immigration back in January? “I think my positions are going to be what the people in this room come up with,” he said then. “If they come to me with things that I’m not in love with, I’m going to do it because I respect them.” He thought wrong, as it turned out, and that promise vanished down a Trumpian “shit hole.”
Remember Trump’s disappearing act during the government shutdown later that month? The great dealmaker was kept away from the big-boy negotiations so he couldn’t screw anything up. That was fine with Democrats: “What’s even more frustrating than President Trump’s intransigence is the way he seems amenable to these compromises before completely switching positions and backing off,” Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer observed at the time. “Negotiating with President Trump is like negotiating with Jell-O.”
Trump’s ignorance, of course, extends beyond policy to the mechanics of policy and the limitations of his own power. Even with a compliant Congress, Trump has pushed an expansive view of his powers — a personal sense the president is or should be the boss of the government (including Congress), combined with a supporting staff ideologically inclined toward an imperial executive. An example, perhaps most extremely, is his recent declaration that he could single-handedly reinterpret the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of citizenship to anyone born in this country.
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Now imagine what he’ll do when faced with intractable gridlock and unending investigations.
We can tell a little bit of his probable leanings from the way that he and his administration conducted the closing days of the campaign, leaning in on a friendly Senate map while abandoning a House fight which most political observers wrote off. Trump will declare himself the winner of the night and the savior of a Senate that was never in real danger of turning Democratic because he campaigned for winners in states that had voted for him (never mind the Democratic survivor in West Virginia, for example).
As for the House, we’ll hear from his surrogates, at least, about how hard it is to run against history; presidents’ parties always lose House seats in midterm races after all. But history didn’t cost the GOP control of the House and history neither forced House Republicans to appease an unpopular president. History also did not compel an odious chief executive to campaign as a merchant of fear, whipping up nationalist xenophobia while trying to wreck the health care system and then lying about all of it. (None of that was lost on the suburban voters who repudiated the president and his party.)
The Democrats simply meeting expectations may not be sexy, but we shouldn’t understate the importance of doing so: One-party rule is over.
That means two critical things: First the Trump agenda as we’ve known it is dead on Capitol Hill as of January; second, a blizzard of subpoenas will soon issue from the northern side of the Capitol Hill, wafting down Pennsylvania Avenue.
The tax returns to which — contrary to tradition and basic norms of ethical government — Trump has so fiercely clung? That’s “one of the first things we’d do,” House Democratic leader (and presumptive incoming speaker?) Nancy Pelosi said in September. And that’s just for starters: The Russia investigation, Trump obstruction, the intersection of public policy and Trump family finances, the cornucopia of mini-scandals that have dominated Trump’s cabinet and administration — the entire carnival of corruption which not drained but gilded the swamp — will be fair game for Democratic investigators.
So how does the erratic chief executive respond? As presidents tend to do, he’ll likely push the limits of his own executive powers even further.
The problem is that Trump is a glorified, overpowered version of a low-information Fox News voter with a conservative bumper-sticker grasp of policy and so he is incapable of real political deal-making. When he wanders too far off the reservation, his conservative staffers reel him back.
Plus Democrats can’t have forgotten what trying to deal with President Jell-O was like. They too will have limitations from their own base, and be leery that any deal-making with the president will burnish his bipartisan credentials and bolster his re-election prospects. Besides which, Trump’s famously thin-skin, counter-punching instincts and impulse-control issues (especially on Twitter, where he will probably have colorful nicknames for top Democrats even before they start wielding gavels in January) all figure to make the presidential relationship with the House more, not less, fraught.
The president may think he’s walking into negotiations with a Democratic-controlled House with the upper hand — as he inevitably seems to believe in every situation — but the truth is that he can’t accomplish much of anything that they don’t want him to achieve. And having established himself to his own base as both the world’s best closer and the man in charge, being brought to heel by Nancy Pelosi is bound to sting.