The Daily 202: Why Trump And Republicans Are Suddenly Talking Up Bipartisanship

Since the day they enacted the biggest overhaul of the tax code in a generation without a single Democratic vote, Republicans have been talking a big game about their supposed desire to work across the aisle.

"We hope that 2018 will be a year of more bipartisan cooperation," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters at Camp David on Saturday, dubiously predicting that "a significant number of Democrats" will want to support President Donald Trump's agenda.

"We hope that we're going to be able to work out an arrangement with the Democrats. It's something, certainly, that I'd like to see happen," Trump added at the news conference, which was overshadowed by his declaration earlier in the day that he is "like, really smart" and "a very stable genius."

The paeans to working together partly reflect legislative necessity. Because of Senate rules, Republicans will need 60 votes to keep the government open beyond the end of next week, avert the deportation of hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children, appropriate money for disaster relief, renew the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, stabilize the health-care system they've shattered and avoid a default on the national debt in March.

Now that Doug Jones has been sworn in as Alabama's new senator, Republicans only have 51 seats. Two of their members, John McCain and Thad Cochran, have serious health problems that make their votes hard to depend on.

But cold, hard political calculus is the bigger driver of these new GOP talking points. Public and private polls show that the Trump administration's steadfast unwillingness to work in good faith with Democrats has become a serious liability for down-ballot Republicans in the midterms.

-- Republican lobbyist Bruce Mehlman notes that 2017 saw levels of party-line voting not seen in 100 years.

-- Trump's surprise deal with Democrats on hurricane disaster funding last fall has been just about his most popular action as president. Two-thirds of Americans supported that agreement in our polling, but congressional Republicans were incensed they had the rug pulled out from underneath them, and the president quickly backed away from his kind words for "Chuck and Nancy" after he saw blowback from his base.

-- One major reason that the tax cuts are so unpopular is the widespread perception that Republicans rammed their bill through as a giveaway to their rich donors without trying to work with Democrats to make sure it benefited the middle class. Only 27 percent of U.S. adults said Republicans made a "good faith effort to cooperate with Democrats on the tax bill," according to a late December CNN/SSRS poll; 37 percent thought Democrats made a good-faith effort to compromise. While 76 percent of Republicans supported the final product, barely one-third of independents and just 3 percent of Democrats did.

Moreover, most Americans do not have confidence in Republican lawmakers to lead, so the public is likely to be skeptical of any measure passed with only their support. A November Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 3 in 4 Americans said they have "just some" (48 percent) or "no confidence" (28 percent) in Republicans in Congress to make the right decisions about the country's future (76 percent in total).

-- Obamacare, likewise, passed without any Republican votes eight years ago. But Democrats spent months trying fruitlessly to get some GOP lawmakers on board. As a result, a Washington Post-ABC News poll in March 2010 found that 48 percent of Americans thought Barack Obama and Democrats had made a good faith effort to reach across the aisle on health care. Nonetheless, the law's popularity suffered due to the lack of bipartisan support.

-- Four years ago this week, when he was still the minority leader, McConnell spoke at length on the Senate floor about how terrible it is when the majority party passes important legislation without crossover support. Read this quote from him with the tax bill in mind:

"When Democrats couldn't convince any of us that [the Affordable Care Act] was worth supporting as written, they decided to do it on their own and pass it on a party line vote. And now we're seeing the result. The chaos this law has visited on our country isn't just deeply tragic, it was entirely predictable. And that will always be the case if you approach legislation without regard for the views of the other side. Without some meaningful buy-in, you guarantee a food fight. You guarantee instability and strife. It may very well have been the case that on Obamacare, the will of the country was not to pass the bill at all. That's what I would have concluded if Republicans couldn't get a single Democrat vote for legislation of this magnitude. I'd have thought, maybe this isn't such a great idea. But Democrats plowed forward anyway. They didn't want to hear it. And the results are clear. It's a mess."

-- Paul Maslin was Jones's pollster in Alabama. He believes their victory proved that the right way for Democrats to appeal to the middle in 2018 is to run as counterweights to chaos, name-calling and inaction. "If you are out there, particularly as a challenger, communicating that message, it can really work," the veteran Democratic operative said during an interview last week when he was in town for the new senator's swearing-in. "That was our calling card. When we talked about health care and education, we did it through that context and lens: Why can't we work together to get something done? Why can't people work together to improve our schools? Democrats can stick to the issues that matter most to them and then make a larger point about getting along and civility. . .

"We obviously did not want to have some big ideological fight," he added. "Their voters are tired of all this too. They may still attack Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer or Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. But deep down they know their side is in power, and they're screwing up. And they're upset about it."

Maslin said that the campaign's most effective commercial was a 60-second spot that featured Jones talking straight to camera about the battle of Gettysburg. The former federal prosecutor, with his Southern lilt, told the story of the battle for Little Round Top, where Col. William Oates of Alabama and Col. Joshua Chamberlain of Maine led troops against each other. "Those times have passed long ago and our country is better for it, but now we fight too often over other matters," Jones said. "It seems as if we're coming apart. I want to go to Washington and meet the representatives from Maine and those from every other state, not on the battlefield, but to find common ground. Because there's honor in compromise and civility, to pull together as a people, and to get things done for Alabama."

-- Of course, Trump's unpopularity is a hindrance for GOP candidates. Given that roughly half the country "strongly" disapproves of his job performance, his endorsement can do more to damage a policy's popularity than help it. Business Insider editor Josh Barro has dubbed this an "inverse Midas touch." The most striking example is the Keystone XL pipeline, which a majority supported throughout the Obama administration but became far less popular this year, as Trump publicly supported it.

-- But something much deeper is going on, as well: Americans are particularly concerned about the state of our democracy and the depth of political division, which adds to the appetite for something different. A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll last fall found that about 7 in 10 Americans think the problems in American politics have reached a dangerous new low point, and a similar 7 in 10 say political divisions are at least as big as during the Vietnam war. Fully 36 percent are "not proud" of the way democracy works in the country, twice the percentage who said this in both 2014 and 1996 (18 percent and 16 percent, respectively).

A Monmouth University poll, published last Wednesday, underscored just how depressed Americans are about the state of governance:

--Only 50 percent feel our system of government is basically sound.

--81 percent think that the founders would be upset with the way the institutions of our government, such as Congress and the presidency, have been working over the past 10 years. Just 11 percent say the founders would be happy.

--20 percent feel that Trump has made progress in his promise to "drain the swamp," down from 25 percent in August. Another 33 percent say he has "made the swamp worse" and 38 percent say nothing has really changed.

--The vast majority of Americans are either dissatisfied with (60 percent) or angry (20 percent) at Washington.

--63 percent feel that the country has become more divided since Trump took office, up from 52 percent last March. Only 9 percent say the country is becoming more united under Trump.

"Hyper-partisanship goes hand in hand with government dysfunction," said Patrick Murray, director of the independent and nonpartisan Monmouth poll. "Americans see a government that does not govern because elected officials are either self-serving or are driven by the ideological extremes that characterize our current political climate."

-- Democrats have valid reasons to doubt the sincerity of GOP calls for bipartisanship. Their leaders were excluded from the Camp David summit where Trump and McConnell proclaimed a desire to work with them. As he spoke, Trump demanded that Democrats agree to $18 billion for his border wall - which everyone knows is a non-starter poison pill. Also, whatever happened to Mexico paying for it?

The president delivered another statement about his yearning for bipartisanship last Thursday during a White House meeting about immigration, which only Republicans were invited to attend. Administration officials are still not consulting with Democrats in any kind of meaningful way as they formulate their infrastructure plan.

And don't forget that McConnell went nuclear and literally changed the rules of the Senate to force the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, whose short tenure on the Supreme Court has already validated Democratic fears that he will be an even more conservative justice than Antonin Scalia. Disregarding blue slips for circuit court nominees, a century-old prerogative that Obama respected, further poisoned the well.

-- But leaders in the minority party still have a difficult needle to thread. To win the House, they will need a lot of people who voted for Trump in 2016 to back their candidates in 2018. Ten Democratic senators are also up for reelection in states the president carried. And they don't want to give too many victories to Republicans because then the majority party may look capable of governing.

-- The fate of DACA recipients is expected to dominate budget talks between congressional leaders and the White House this week, as both parties work to resolve what has become their primary obstacle to a spending deal. The Post's Ed O'Keefe, Mike DeBonis and Erica Werner report that there will finally be a bipartisan meeting on immigration policy on Tuesday: "If Trump and lawmakers can strike an immigration deal, negotiators on both sides think that other issues, including how to fund a children's health insurance program and a roughly $80 billion package to pay for disaster relief, could be resolved."

But Democrats are split over whether it's worth forcing a government shutdown to protect the so-called "dreamers." Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., for example, characterized a possible shutdown as an "opportunity" for Democrats: "I believe that if we can increase voter turnout by 5 percent from 2014, Democrats will regain the House and Senate. But you cannot do that unless ordinary people believe you are fighting for them." But Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the No. 2 Senate Democrat and a lead negotiator on immigration, said he would continue working with Republicans like Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., "who understand what is at stake" in hopes of striking a bipartisan deal.

Democrats maximize their leverage if they can stick together. "But if [they] venture too far into the bipartisan realm, they risk pushback from the hyper-engaged base voters who would be critical in the 2018 election in every district, whether it's safe or toss-up," said Nadeam Elshami, who was Nancy Pelosi's chief of staff until last year.

That's why it's good to maintain some healthy skepticism of polls showing that the public supports compromise. While it's easy to support compromise conceptually when you're not dealing with policy specifics, conservatives and liberals alike tend to oppose deals when they result in outcomes they don't want.

Elshami predicts that Republicans will design lots of show votes to help give their endangered members cover and drive a wedge between Democrats. "These challenges have been faced by the House and Senate Democratic Party Leaders before, but never in a year that holds so much promise, and possible peril, especially in the House," Elshami wrote in a note for clients of Signal Group, where he now works. "Balancing the interests of the Democratic Caucuses and the voters, while maintaining unity for maximum legislative leverage, is the daily practice in the Art of Impossible."

-- Infrastructure is a ripe issue for Republicans to play on Democratic infighting and seek crossover support. But the Trump administration presented contradictory information about what exactly its plan will entail during this weekend's GOP retreat. "Trump expressed misgivings about his administration's infrastructure plan Friday at Camp David, telling Republican leaders that building projects through public-private partnerships is unlikely to work - and that it may be better for the government to pursue a different path," The Post's Josh Dawsey reports. "Then on Saturday morning, Gary Cohn, the president's chief economic adviser, delivered a detailed proposal on infrastructure and public-private partnerships that seemed to contradict the president. He said the administration hoped $200 billion in new federal government spending would trigger almost $1 trillion in private spending and local and state spending, according to people familiar with his comments. Cohn seemed to present the plan as the administration's approach, although the president had suggested such an approach might not work."


Scott Clement, the director of The Post's polling unit, contributed.

With Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve.


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