So Much for Deal Making

Stuart Rothenberg April 5, 2017 · 9:20 AM EDT

It seemed logical. But so far it hasn’t happened.

Last year, many political observers were suggesting that new political leadership in the nation’s capital could well usher in a wave of political negotiation and compromise. No, the legislative process wouldn’t suddenly become easy, but the unadulterated partisanship that had paralyzed Washington, D.C. might soften a bit, creating an opportunity for cooperation.

Harry Reid would be gone, replaced by New York wheeler-dealer Chuck Schumer. Republican Mitch McConnell, also a negotiator, would have a willing partner. Without Reid, who had changed the rules and frozen the GOP out so often, the Senate could get back to being a place where Republicans and Democrats could bargain.

President Barack Obama would also be gone – as would his detached approach to Congress. The new president would start afresh, without the baggage that Obama had. She would understand how to work with legislators, learning both from her own time in the Senate and in the White House.

And Paul Ryan would be able to work his green eye shade magic. Never an ideologue, the House speaker was the kind of conservative who understood that deals needed to be made, compromises struck. That’s the way Washington, D.C. works.

This hopefulness wasn’t based on a Pollyanna-like delusion. Nobody thought that the changes would mark the beginning of a new era of bipartisanship. 

Hillary Clinton’s unexpected loss changed the name of the new president but not the analysis.

After all, Donald Trump was never an ideologue. He wasn’t even a conservative. He made his name as a real estate deal maker. He doesn’t care about long-time partisan wrangling or the slights that one party delivered to the other. He would be happy if both sides believed that they’ve won when the final deal is done.

But two and one-half months into the Trump presidency, little of that hopefulness remains.

Reid helped poison the Senate’s political waters, but even though he has retired, those waters remain as toxic as ever, as the Neil Gorsuch confirmation process has demonstrated.

Merrick Garland is still on the minds of Senate Democrats, while Republicans have not forgotten that it was Reid who changed the rules on confirmations. Pres. Trump hasn’t made things any easier for McConnell with those early morning tweets and accusations of President Obama’s wiretapping.

Over in the House, Democrats have been about as cooperative as Republicans were when the GOP was stymying Obama – except this time Republicans are also stymying themselves. Ryan promised his health care bill would make it through the House, but he found out what former speaker John Boehner already knew – partisanship is only part of the problem. House Republicans have met their enemy – and it is them.

To make matters worse, the House Intelligence Committee looks like the ultimate partisan arena, with Republicans acting as if every Trump tweet includes an accusation that warrants investigation.

And the president? Well, he has certainly been active on the executive order front and in rolling back regulations. But when it comes to legislation and working with Congress, he seems little more than a cheerleader – prattling on about the great things he is doing or tweeting threats to those on Capitol Hill who disagree with him. 

The permanent campaign, and especially year-round fundraising, is part of the problem, but the nature of our media – with partisan outlets ratcheting up the rhetoric – and the rise of “outside” political groups hasn’t helped.

Congress may yet do a deal or two, possibly on infrastructure spending or repatriation of corporate profits from overseas. And the House seemingly must make another attempt at health care reform, though a deal with the Senate seems like a long shot. But so far, Washington D.C.’s new leadership seems to have the same problems as the old one.

Of course, while everyone calls for Congress and the president to produce on taxes, health care, immigration, infrastructure and jobs, it’s the impact of the legislation that will ultimately matter to voters in 2018 and 2020. And for many Democrats, gridlock undoubtedly would be preferable to the Trump alternative.