Here’s the truth: Donald Trump has many infirmities that have been evident since the 2016 campaign and account for the chaos that characterizes his presidency. Poor temperament, a lack of knowledge about the function of American government, a belief that he can run the White House as he ran his family-owned company, very little knowledge of policy, and other longstanding flaws have considerably damaged his presidency.
But candidate Trump also had one unique strength that offered the possibility, however remote, that he could deliver on his promises and rectify a very real flaw that has plagued our politics over the last decade. As a businessman without an overarching ideology, who got elected in spite of opposition from his party’s power brokers, he was poised to become the bipartisan dealmaker that he for so long bragged about being. He had an opportunity to cut through partisan gridlock while maintaining the loyalty of his base and addressing America’s pressing issues.
On that count, however, he has failed abysmally, fumbling away opportunity after opportunity, — most recently with the unveiling of his plan to reduce the cost of prescription drugs last week — either because he failed to recognize the possibilities presented by his unique political freedom — transcending polarization and gridlock, having a positive impact on Americans’ lives and accordingly boosting his own popularity — or because he has ensconced himself in a right-wing echo chamber which has skewed whatever pragmatic instincts he might have. While it may be too late, undoing this mistake might be the only way for Trump to save his presidency.
While Trump mouthed standard conservative positions on issues ranging from abortion to gun rights during the campaign, his greatest appeal to his uniquely loyal base stemmed from right-wing populist positions on trade and immigration. The toughness he projected and his willingness to take it to smug, politically correct liberals also attracted many Americans and helped propel him to victory. Appealing on these relatively narrow grounds, combined with the fact that Trump had already proven that he could navigate both a primary and a general election without support from the conservative political establishment, gave him a great deal of latitude to cut deals on other issues and play to the center in a way another Republican president likely could not.
Yet, for much of his first year in office, Trump allowed Congressional Republicans to seek to achieve priorities like dismantling Obamacare and enacting tax reform using special budget reconciliation procedures. These rules allowed legislation to pass with a simple majority in the Senate, but poisoned the well and ensured these efforts would focus on unifying Republicans, not constructing the bipartisan coalitions Trump would need in the future.
In late January, however, with tax reform successfully enacted, Democratic Senate Leader Charles Schumer gave Trump an opportunity to pivot over a lunch of cheeseburgers, offering the president a deal on DACA: full funding for his signature border wall in exchange for a path to citizenship for so-called Dreamers who were brought to the United States as children.
It was an ideal opportunity for Trump. Protecting Dreamers had widespread support among Americans, and seemed to be something that Trump himself favored. The deal proposed by Schumer also would have allowed the President to go before the cameras and declare victory. He could have said something like “They told you Trump would never get the money for his wall. Well, we got the money, and we’re going to have the wall.” The deal would have placated the center most because Americans saw Dreamers in a sympathetic light while also pleasing Trump’s base by making him look like a man who could deliver.
While he initially appeared receptive, later in the day, Trump rejected the offer, leading to a short government shutdown. Subsequently, he offered a proposal that included protections for Dreamers but coupled the wall funding with several hardline immigration provisions that made any sort of a deal impossible.
A month later, the pattern repeated itself. Trump flirted with support for increased gun control in a televised meeting with legislators. His remarks left Democrats grinning and Republicans squirming. But after meeting with officials from the National Rifle Association, Trump largely fell silent on the issue, allowing staffers to walk back some of his earlier positions and proposing a far more modest set of reforms. Completing his reversal, he recently promised the NRA’s annual convention, “But they [attendees’ Second Amendment rights] will never ever be under siege as long as I’m your president.”
Now Trump is following the same path on prescription drug prices. Last Friday, Trump unveiled his plan to bring down the cost of prescriptions. Nowhere to be found, however, was the popular proposal of allowing the government to directly negotiate lower prescription drug prices for Medicare — something Trump had promised during his campaign and that holds appeal to Democrats. So unthreatening were his proposals that the stock prices for several major drug and biotech companies, as well as pharmacy benefit managers, rose after Trump’s speech.
Why has someone who billed himself as a great dealmaker instead governed like a conventional conservative on issues other than trade?
First, Trump has surrounded himself largely with conventional conservative advisers, which matters significantly given his fairly loose grasp of policy. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar II, for example, is a former top drug company executive. More broadly, Trump routinely receives advice from conservative broadcasters like Sean Hannity and has embraced the far right House Freedom Caucus and its leader Mark Meadows. Certainly, these advisers and confidants are pushing Trump to stand tough against liberals and explaining why conservatives proposals are superior, instead of nurturing his dealmaking impulses.
Second, Trump seems obsessed with catering to his base, failing to understand that one reason many Americans embraced him so enthusiastically is that he didn’t share the ideological rigidity of conservatives in Congress or some of his advisers. To some extent Trump seems to feel bound by his most conservative campaign positions and rhetoric, viewing them as ironclad promises to his base. This empowers his most conservative advisers, who point to these promises when trying to sway Trump in their direction.
What Trump has failed to understand however is that a few moderate achievements in which he takes on conservative orthodoxy and congressional Republicans would allow him to cultivate an image as a deal cutter — a true populist — who prioritizes the needs of Americans over ideology or party. Such a move would broaden his possible pool of supporters, and so long as he kept talking tough on trade, immigration, and political correctness, he can likely do so without sacrificing.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton and Congressional Republicans learned that cutting deals on issues like the minimum wage boosted everyone involved. Voters comfortably re-elected Clinton, while keeping Congress in Republican hands.
The stakes are high for Trump, If he fails to broaden his popularity, his only path to re-election is banking on Democrats nominating a candidate as flawed and unpopular as his 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton. Without that gift, however, he’ll be doomed to be a one-term president.