Senate Democrats today unveiled a plan to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on infrastructure. What is noteworthy about this proposal is less the substance than the underlying strategic rationale for it. Democrats are “eager to drive a wedge between the new president and congressional Republicans” and “persuade [President Trump] to adopt ideas that would put him at odds with GOP leaders,” reports the Washington Post. A senior Democratic Senate aide, speaking with the Atlantic’s Michelle Cottle, lays out the party’s strategery in more explicit detail:
“We are presenting a choice to the president,” said the senior Senate aide. If he pursues issues that align with Democratic priorities, “he will find Democrats eager to work with him.” This will, however, require Trump to “buck the Republicans in Congress,” stressed the aide. Democrats’ selective cooperation is not aimed at “finding middle ground” with GOP members, the aide clarified, but about Trump’s “upending decades of Republican orthodoxy” and “going around congressional Republicans” on particular issues. The goal: deny the majority legislative wins while positioning Democrats as the party that can work with Trump to get stuff done.”
So that’s the plan: force Trump into a choice between either failing to uphold his campaign promises or else proving that Democrats, not Republicans, are the ones who can make governing work. Alas, this theory rests upon numerous assumptions that are almost certainly false.
1. It assumes Trump will not really want to sign a huge infrastructure bill. Trump promised a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan during the campaign, but proposed a plan based on tax credits that would mostly confer windfall benefits on existing proposals. Democrats think this is because Trump doesn’t really want to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on infrastructure. I suspect otherwise. His chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has made it clear that a massive infrastructure plan is a key, and perhaps the key, element in Trump’s plan to cement the loyalty of white working-class Democrats. The notion that Trump would refuse to spend the necessary funds on such a plan because he cares too much about the deficit seems fanciful.
Trump also seems to grasp that infrastructure gives him the chance for a high-profile bipartisan deal. Describing his “beautiful” relationship with leaders of both parties yesterday, Trump boasted, “We’re about to make a big deal.” The infrastructure bill would provide the sweet bipartisan coating to the bitter pill of his otherwise orthodox right-wing agenda. Democrats think they’re calling Trump’s bluff, when in all likelihood, Trump is calling theirs.
2. It likewise assumes that congressional Republicans bitterly oppose large-scale infrastructure spending on principle. “We’re going to challenge [Trump],” explains Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer. “Break your promise to the blue-collar world, or work with us and split with the right, the Republican establishment, which hates these things.” It is true that they stonewalled any such plan during President Obama’s tenure. But this is because they understood that a bill with the optics of bipartisan cooperation, and the substance of fiscal stimulus to the economy, would benefit Obama and his party. When Republicans had control of government under George W. Bush, they were very happy to pass debt-financed spending programs. To be sure, it is a slightly awkward messaging task for Republicans to immediately abandon their eight years of debt hysteria the moment a Republican moves into the White House. A bit of time will be required to reprogram the Fox News and talk-radio audience. From this standpoint, Democratic support for the bill provides Republicans with an added benefit: They can posture virtuously against the bill, and later decry it as a cause of the increase in deficits that is coming, while Democrats supply the votes to pass it.
3. The Democrats’ most deeply mistaken premise is their belief that the voters will make specific judgments about which congressional party is more effective. That is simply not how voters think. They make judgments about the state of the country, and hold the president and his party accountable. They do not separate their judgments about the congressional party from the president — indeed, they are so single-minded in their focus on the president that voters actually base their vote for state legislature on their assessment of the president.
In theory, it might make sense for the public to conclude that Democrats are doing a better job than Republicans of helping Trump govern. In reality, that is not how they think at all. If Trump passes a bipartisan bill, it will make Trump more popular, and thus Trump’s party more popular. Democrats’ success in the next two elections will be determined by Trump’s approval ratings. The lower his ratings, the better Democrats will do. Voters are not going to reward Democrats for proving they can get stuff done with Trump.
To be sure, it would be awkward for Democrats to openly oppose infrastructure spending after having supported it for years before. The easy way out for them would be to follow Arizona Representative Ruben Gallego’s proposal to deny support for any infrastructure bill unless Trump releases his taxes to prove he would not personally benefit. Trump might get away with unprecedented corruption in office, but why not make Republicans in Congress bear the sole responsibility for this destruction of long-standing norms? Why should Democrats participate?
But Senate Democrats have not imposed any such condition on their infrastructure plan. Matt House, a spokesman for Schumer, told me, “Our position is that the president should make his returns public, that he shouldn’t earn any money off of this bill, and that he should support the legislation.” In other words, Democrats will not require any mechanism to ensure that Trump and his family do not profit off the bill as a condition for supporting a bill. That means they are willing not only to give Trump the political win he craves but also to tacitly cooperate with his obliteration of long-standing norms.
Now, perhaps Democrats are so passionate about the cause of public infrastructure they are willing to sacrifice their vulnerable members and reduce their chance of picking up seats in order to secure progress on this vital issue. And perhaps they care about it so deeply they are willing to give Trump the boost in approval ratings, by demonstrating his ability to work with both parties.
But if we take Democrats at their word, they are not proposing to sacrifice their own self-interest for the sake of building infrastructure. They instead appear to believe they have devised a clever plan to advance their own interests. In that case, they are badly deluded.