President Donald Trump is looking for a congressional leader he likes. Mitch McConnell has been found wanting, so now the president is flirting with Chuck Schumer.
Trump sided with Schumer and Nancy Pelosi last week on an agreement to extend the debt ceiling for three months. The Republican leadership in Congress wanted a longer extension, worried that a short-term measure would give Democrats more leverage when it expires at the end of the year.
The agreement — plus Trump’s warm words about “Chuck and Nancy” and his reported delight over the positive press coverage of the deal — has driven speculation that Trump will turn to the Democrats in a bipartisan “pivot.”
If a partnership with Schumer is indeed Trump’s plan for a new phase in his presidency, he should think again.
It makes sense that Trump is tempted. His frustration with congressional leadership is, from his perspective, understandable. These are the pros who told him when he showed up in Washington that they had a plan and that he needn’t worry. So far, there’s nothing to show for it.
Trump feels some freedom to maneuver. He has a firmer grasp on Republican voters than anyone in Congress. If Republicans didn’t hate their own leaders, Trump never would have won the nomination or become president in the first place.
Personal affinity surely plays a role. Trump speaks the language of his fellow outer-borough New Yorker Schumer more than Paul Ryan, the earnest policy wonk, or Mitch McConnell, the masterly tactician.
Finally, Trump might believe that he can boost his sagging poll numbers by reminding people he’s a nonideological deal-maker and by getting things — anything — done.
A Schumer alliance is, nonetheless, a siren song. The debt deal wasn’t really a deal. It was a case where Trump could see some advantages — securing Hurricane Harvey funding, gaining some breathing space for tax reform — by simply giving in to Schumer and Pelosi. How often is that going to happen?
Maybe there could be a deal over a codification of DACA, with Trump again largely deferring to Schumer and Pelosi, or some creative infrastructure package. But there are limits to what Ryan and McConnell, who have considerable legislative power, would be willing to bring to the floor; they aren’t going to shift to the left just because Trump does.
And Schumer has his own priorities. He isn’t going to bless a “tax cut for the rich.” He’s not going to repeal Obamacare. He’s not going to fund the border wall. He’s not going to support the RAISE act, cutting levels of legal immigration. He’s not going to roll over on another conservative Supreme Court nominee.
The idea that Trump, who has been too inept to help his own party in Congress, will team up with perhaps the most deviously shrewd Democrat in the country and come out on top is difficult to credit. Schumer will milk Trump for whatever he can get — every tactical advantage, every bit of new spending — so long as he doesn’t give away anything important and doesn’t materially boost Trump’s political standing.
The dalliance with Schumer comes in the midst of the Republican push for tax reform. It can only add another layer of distrust and dysfunction atop an already-fraught relationship with the GOP leadership at a time when it is grappling with an enormously complex legislative task.
Indeed, the ultimate appeal to Trump of an alliance with Schumer must be the hope of escape from the chaos of his own governing style, which has been a drag on his own party. But there is no escape, whether Trump’s wingman is McConnell or Schumer, or, for that matter, Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders.
The Senate minority leader may look alluring now. Soon enough, he will be just as unsatisfactory in Trump’s eyes as nearly everyone else in Washington.