There are good, sound reasons why Democrats in Congress might want to cut some deals with Donald Trump. Maybe they can persuade him to stay in the Paris climate accords, or to preserve Obamacare with some tolerable revisions, in which case giving him bipartisan cover might be worthwhile. But Charles Schumer, the Senate Majority Leader, seems to have a completely misguided understanding of how the calculation works. Obviously Schumer is not providing candid accounts of his political strategy to the public. But a series of reports from Democrats who have spoken with him paints a consistent account of a leader who thinks his party’s best chance of survival lies in working with Trump.
The latest such dispatch comes from Politico’s Annie Karni, who writes, “Schumer, by nature, is a dealmaker, not an ideologue — and insiders said he’s more interested in keeping open a line of conversation with Trump Tower in the hopes of holding the seats of the 10 Democratic Senators up for reelection in 2018 in states where Trump won, a move designed to protect his caucus.”
Schumer’s idea is a faithful reflection of the way Congress thought about politics years ago, when Schumer was coming up through the system. It’s a totally plausible model, which assumes that vulnerable members of Congress can shore up their standing by proving to their constituents that they can win concrete achievements. That is how Schumer has built a career, and he wants to help Democrats in red states do the same, by finding some bills where they can shake hands with Trump and cut ribbons on some bridges, and so on. Schumer’s idea can be boiled down to:
Senate Democrats work with Trump → Voters conclude Senate Democrats are doing a good job → Senate Democrats win reelection.
Yet both empirical research and recent experience show that this dynamic, which seems to make sense, does not actually work at all. The truth is that voters pay little attention to legislative details, or even to Congress at all. They make decisions on the basis of how they feel about the president, not how they feel about Congress. And a major factor in their evaluation of the president is the presence or absence of partisan conflict. If a president has support from the opposition party, it tells voters he’s doing well, and they then choose to reward the president’s party down-ballot.
This dynamic played out during George W. Bush’s first term. After 9/11 — an extraordinary event, to be sure — both parties rallied around Bush. This caused his approval ratings to skyrocket, and as a result, Democrats in Congress suffered an unusual beating in the 2002 midterm, which ordinarily would have been an opportunity for the opposing party to record gains. Indeed, the bipartisan halo around Bush persisted long enough to let him win reelection in 2004. Only in Bush’s second term, when partisan cooperation collapsed, did Democrats make major gains.
Under Obama, Schumer logic would have dictated that vulnerable Republicans demonstrate a willingness to work together with the extremely popular new president. Instead, the Republican Party denied any bipartisan support for almost any bill, despite the popularity of both Obama and the proposals at issue. This created a sense of partisan dysfunction that allowed Republicans to make major gains in midterm elections, despite the fact that their party and its agenda remained deeply unpopular. The actual dynamic, then, is:
Senate Democrats work with Trump → Voters conclude Trump is doing a good job → Senate Republicans and Trump win reelection
Senate Democrats don’t work with Trump → Voters conclude Trump is doing a bad job → Senate Democrats win reelection
If Schumer wants to prevent bad outcomes, he might cut some deals with Trump. But those deals are going to put his members at risk. If he wants to protect his red-state seats, he needs to drive down Trump’s approval ratings, which means fighting Trump on everything. It’s unfortunate for the Democratic Party that its most powerful elected official does not seem to understand the basic political dynamic.