How a Democratic House Could Work With Trump
In his frenetic campaigning for the midterms, President Trump has gone all in with racially charged, ethnonationalist demagogy — spinning out dystopian visions of “unknown Middle Easterners” storming the southern border, MS-13 members terrorizing the countryside and anxious Californians rioting over sanctuary cities.
But in the gaps between such fantasies, Mr. Trump has also begun revisiting broadly popular policy themes of the sort that he campaigned on in 2016 but then largely abandoned — or actively worked against — once he settled into the Oval Office.
Chief among the president’s newly rediscovered policy passions: protecting health care coverage for pre-existing conditions (“Republicans will totally protect people with Pre-Existing Conditions, Democrats will not!” he tweeted Wednesday). Like a mesmerizing video loop, Mr. Trump keeps reassuring voters over and over that Republican lawmakers really, truly do support this wildly popular provision — or at least they will after he gives them a good talking to.
The president is, likewise, renewing his vow to tackle the high cost of prescription drugs. On Thursday, he announced a plan to revamp how Medicare pays for certain medications. The proposal, which would bypass Congress altogether, isn’t finalized and is expected to draw strong pushback from industry interests. (A more modest effort by President Barack Obama in 2016 to address Medicare drug costs fell flat.) “Nobody’s going to like this,” one administration official told Politico. “It antagonizes too many people.” But those concerns are for another day. Mr. Trump wants everyone to know that he is on the case.
Also back on the president’s to-do list: infrastructure. In 2016, Mr. Trump promised to deliver a plan immediately after getting elected. That high-priority agenda item went exactly nowhere with this Congress. But not to worry, he guarantees that there’ll be a big push right after the midterms. “We think that’s going to be an easy one,” he recently told Fox Business.
It would be easy to dismiss Mr. Trump’s latest policy patter as hogwash, the sort of promise-making in which he specializes — like his pledge to drain the political swamp or get Mexico to pay for The Wall. It further muddles matters that Mr. Trump’s words often seem to contradict his actions, as when he portrays himself as champion of coverage for pre-existing conditions even as he urged Congress to vote to repeal Obamacare without replacing it or as his administration declines to defend the provision against legal challenges.
But if Democrats manage to take control of the House after the Nov. 6 elections, Mr. Trump’s campaign palaver could shift to something more interesting: a starter map to policies on which the president and Democratic lawmakers might actually be able to get something done.
Yes, go ahead and roll your eyes. Yet recall that in the days before Mr. Trump took office, when lawmakers from both parties were anxiously wondering what a Trump era would look like, some Democrats said they would be willing — happy even — to work with the new president on shared values. Infrastructure development was one area of potential agreement. Lowering prescription drug costs and shoring up coverage for pre-existing conditions clearly would fall into that category as well.
Nearly two years on, a Democratic House majority playing ball with a president that most of its base would love to see driven from office may sound absurd. Some of Mr. Trump’s promises aren’t much different from what he touted in 2016, and so far he has lacked follow-through to realize them, either because he’s not interested or because other Republicans won’t let him. But, if the House flips, there are advantages to at least trying.
Many congressional Democrats and presidential hopefuls are eager to avoid looking excessively partisan or vindictive as 2020 approaches. Offering to work with Mr. Trump on drug costs, for example, might help them come across as functioning adults.
With Republicans likely to retain control of the Senate, the odds of even a vaguely progressive bill of any real significance making it through the upper chamber are slim. It’s hard to imagine Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, allowing his members to come within 100 miles of, say, a costly infrastructure plan. But this, too, could work to the Democrats’ advantage.
By pushing issues that the president specifically and aggressively promoted on the campaign trail this year, House Democrats could turn up the political heat on Senate Republicans to take awkward votes on popular issues. If Mr. McConnell declined to take action, as is so often his way, Democrats could hammer home the contrast between their let’s-get-stuff-done attitude and Republicans’ obstructionism. Along the way, they might even find a way to drive a wedge between Republican lawmakers and the president.
As for Mr. Trump’s incentive to reach across the aisle: The man likes to win. It may well be the only thing he cares about. Republican lawmakers acknowledge that he often doesn’t give a flip about the specific contents of a deal, so long as he can climb aboard and declare victory.
Thus far, the president’s path to victory has run through a Congress wholly controlled by members of his own party. If the midterms change that, Mr. Trump will need to revise his approach to dealing with the opposition if he ever wants to see another legislative win.