Since Election Day, Democrats of all stripes have signaled a willingness to work with the president-elect on issues of common concern. Specifically, they’ve broadcast their interest in helping Donald Trump follow through on his vow to fix the nation’s ailing roads, bridges, and grids. Congressional Democrats’ foremost public faces, everyone from Bernie Sanders to Elizabeth Warren to Nancy Pelosi to Chuck Schumer, have sung the same tune: We are willing to help Trump rebuild American infrastructure, and to work with him to improve the lives of working people. When it comes to the more bigoted aspects of his campaign, though, they will fight him tooth and nail.
These conciliatory words have sparked a fierce backlash among many members of the liberal commentariat, as well as a handful of legislators. “If Democrats support elements of Trump’s agenda,” New York’s Jonathan Chait wrote, “it will make Trump more popular and lift the popularity of his party, enabling Republicans to entrench their majorities.” Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Democrat representing Phoenix, said that Trump’s “infrastructure plan is really a privatization scheme, rife with graft and corruption, whose real purpose is to enrich the Trump family and his supporters.”
The nascent anger about this collaboration was further inflamed by a Thursday New York Times article suggesting that Senate Democrats’ “surprising strategy” was to “align with Trump,” a headline that may not have captured precisely what that “strategy” entailed. “On infrastructure spending, child tax credits, paid maternity leave and dismantling trade agreements, Democrats are looking for ways they can work with Mr. Trump and force Republican leaders to choose between their new president and their small-government, free-market principles,” Jennifer Steinhauer wrote. “Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, elected Wednesday as the new Democratic minority leader, has spoken with Mr. Trump several times, and Democrats in coming weeks plan to announce populist economic and ethics initiatives they think Mr. Trump might like.”
The strategy the Times describes here is not to turn the Democratic Party into a coalition of Trump acolytes. There is a middle ground between total resistance and total acquiescence.
All of the arguments—legislative, political, moral—against working with Trump on anything are well-taken. But I’m frustrated by how easily some seem to have arrived at the conclusion that the only path for Democrats is absolute obstructionism, as though this is the obvious choice and there aren’t any trade-offs. It’s not so easy. As Jeff Spross writes at the Week, the Dems are looking at some profound trade-offs either way: between the improvements to people’s lives that a quality infrastructure or child care bill could produce, and the popularity such victories might give to a figure who does not deserve it. So, let me argue the case for working with Trump on select issues if the conditions are right.
Much of the opposition to working with Trump on infrastructure stems from the belief that the plan he’s put forward is terrible. Policy writers are working off of a late October infrastructure proposal from one of Trump’s economic advisers that hinges on private-public partnerships to create a sort of supply-side infrastructure plan. “What Trump has right now is an idiosyncratic proposal for Congress to offer some $137 billion in tax breaks to private investors who want to finance toll roads, toll bridges, or other projects that generate their own revenue streams,” Vox’s Brad Plumer explains. “But this private financing scheme, experts across the political spectrum say, wouldn’t address many of America’s most pressing infrastructure needs—like repairing existing roads or replacing leaky water mains in poorer communities like Flint.” It’s a narrowly targeted plan that doesn’t match what Democrats think of as an “infrastructure bill,” i.e., spending public monies to improve roads and bridges. As Slate’s Jordan Weissmann wrote earlier this month, “the main beneficiaries, in all likelihood, are the Wall Street investors who would love to skim some cash off your ride to work.”
Sounds like a crap bill that Democrats shouldn’t “align with Trump” on, right? If Chuck Schumer and his team really were tripping over themselves to line up behind this sort of thing, it would indeed amount to policy and political malpractice. But a senior Senate Democratic aide tells Slate that Trump’s current infrastructure proposal is not the infrastructure proposal they’re talking about collaborating on. If that’s true—and we’ll see once the actual debate begins—then the argument that Democrats shouldn’t collaborate with him on this terrible proposal is irrelevant, because that’s not what they’re doing.
Chait and Gallego also argue that Trump is corrupt, and so whatever bill he produces will be a con designed to serve his business interests. Chait argues that Democrats might ask as a price of cooperation that Trump “insist that any dealing with Trump be conditioned upon him selling off his family business and placing the assets in a blind trust, and attaching a law requiring presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns.” That’s a good idea! No one’s arguing that Democrats can’t set conditions.
Then there’s the political concern. I’m getting the sense that a lot of liberals, after having suffered under the reign of Sen. Mitch McConnell, are ready and eager to give the majority leader a taste of his own foul-tasting medicine. McConnell, in the 2011 quote I’m seeing re-circulating everywhere this week, explained his strategy of noncooperation in the majority-Democratic Senate of 2009/2010 like so: “We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals,” he told the Atlantic in 2011. “Because we thought—correctly, I think—that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan. When you hang the ‘bipartisan’ tag on something, the perception is that differences have been worked out, and there’s a broad agreement that that’s the way forward.” McConnell also recognized that most of the credit for passing major laws would accrue to the president—and if that law worked out poorly, most of the blame would fall on the Oval Office, too. In other words, now that the positions have switched, there’s no political benefit for Democrats in working with Trump but plenty for Trump himself if the Dems play ball. McConnell took advantage of the sad realities of a broken political system, and Democrats should do the same.
Mitch McConnell is a gifted proceduralist, but we shouldn’t overstate what he was able to accomplish. McConnell was not able to keep Republican fingerprints off of the “stimulus” act and the Dodd–Frank financial reform bill, which each got three Republican votes to push them past a filibuster. No Republicans voted for the Affordable Care Act, because—even though some GOP senators entertained the idea early on—the party as a matter of ideology doesn’t agree with spending large amounts of money to achieve universal health insurance. It was impressive that Democrats could get three votes for Dodd–Frank, because Republicans don’t believe that a lack of regulation caused the financial crisis. Similarly, congressional Democrats do not consider giving out tax credits to build toll roads as a great starting point for an “infrastructure bill,” so they would vote against it. If, however, Trump was interested in spending billions or even $1 trillion—either wholly borrowed, offset by a fee on repatriated corporate money, or via some other source of funds Democrats could live with—to fund identified infrastructure projects, that would be a Democratic idea. It would be a good bill that they want to pass, and good bills are worth voting for.
Trump would get credit for it, yes—assuming small-government conservatives allowed it to move through the House and Senate. But there are a lot of Democrats in the Senate, too, ones who need something to show their constituents ahead of 2018. Democratic senators are up for re-election in 10 states in 2018 that Trump won, some more deeply red (Montana, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, West Virginia) than others (Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida). They will all be difficult races, and Republicans will have an opportunity to pick up a supermajority. It would be mightily helpful for, say, Sens. Jon Tester, Heidi Heitkamp, and Claire McCaskill to have some sort of new bridge or highway to point to, because otherwise Republican-favoring midterm electorates in Republican states have little reason to vote for Democrats. (It might be so helpful to them, by the way, that they would tune out Schumer even if he tried to unite them in opposition. That may be part of the calculus in making overtures toward Trump in the first place.)
The most difficult part of working with Trump is the moral component and what, exactly, Democrats would be rewarding by collaborating with this particular president. My colleague Jamelle Bouie laid it out on Wednesday. “Supporting a Trump-branded infrastructure initiative as a discrete piece of policy where two sides can find common ground only bolsters a white-nationalist politics, even if you oppose the rest of Trump’s agenda,” he wrote. “It legitimizes and gives fuel to white tribalism as a political strategy. It shows that there are tangible gains for embracing Trump-style demagoguery.”
I don’t have any nifty Actually! reply to this. If an infrastructure bill passes, and Trump’s approval rating goes up as a result, it would still seem … undeserved. But I also don’t think it’s tenable for Democrats—especially if Democrats were to advertise it as their strategy!—to keep their hands off every single thing that might make Trump look good, especially if the things that are making him look good include people getting good construction jobs and improved access to child care.
To whatever extent Democratic senators work with Trump on these proposals, they should work extra hard to block the rest of his agenda. They should fight mass deportations, hard. They should fight appointments, like Jeff Sessions’ for attorney general, hard. They should walk out of Congress if Trump moves forward with a “Muslim registry.” They should use all the leverage they can possibly muster in the appropriations process to block rollbacks of the social safety net. If they do it right, they can show that they’ll work with Trump on areas where he meets their interests, on their terms, while also making it known that they’re not, in any way, interested in seeing this president serve a second term.