Will Trump Triangulate?

Former President Bill Clinton strategically positioned himself between dueling Republicans and Democrats in Congress—and got deals out of it. Could Donald Trump do the same?

Jim Lo Scalzo/ AP

The marriage between Donald Trump and congressional Republicans has never seemed for better or for worse.

During his presidential campaign, Trump routinely belittled House and Senate GOP leaders. In turn, more Republican elected officials formally announced they would not support their party’s nominee than in any presidential race probably since 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt bolted the party to challenge GOP President William Howard Taft.

Immediately after Trump’s victory, both sides tried to bury that awkward history. But the chaotic failure of House Republicans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, amid parallel defections from their caucus’s right and center, spotlighted how little priority either faction placed on helping Trump avoid a humiliating legislative defeat. And with Republican divisions threatening more setbacks on spending and taxes, an old phrase from the 1990s is inspiring an urgent new question in Washington: Will Trump triangulate?

Triangulation refers to the strategy Bill Clinton used to revive his presidency after the backlash against his own chaotic first two years in office let Republicans seize the House and Senate in 1994. Guided by Dick Morris, a mercurial political strategist, Clinton positioned himself as the apex of a triangle between congressional Democrats and Republicans.

From that vantage point, Clinton fought with Republicans over their budget proposals and with Democrats over his pledge to restructure welfare. But he ultimately brought together the two sides for agreements on both issues that attracted broad bipartisan support among voters and legislators alike. Nimble and nuanced, Clinton simultaneously energized Democratic partisans and restored his reputation with independents as a fresh-thinking centrist. Two years after his midterm rejection, he cruised to reelection.

Even if House Republicans succeed in their ongoing efforts to resuscitate their failed health-care legislation, the growing fear among GOP legislators is that Trump will cut them loose in a similar strategy. “That’s a very possible, if not likely, outcome,” said Representative Tom Cole, a savvy Republican from Oklahoma who formerly served as the Republican National Committee’s chief of staff. “If the political configuration in Congress can’t deliver [results], why wouldn’t he try something else?”

It’s easy to see why Triangulation 2.0 would tempt the beleaguered Trump, whose belligerent economic nationalism echoes traditional Republican thinking on some fronts, but renounces it on others, such as increasing spending on infrastructure and retirement programs. But he faces policy and political hurdles to adapting Clinton’s approach—not to mention temperamental challenges.

The policy problem is that building bipartisan coalitions requires more than inviting legislators to play golf or watch movies at the White House: It demands substantive concessions that inevitably provoke resistance within a president’s own party. The foundation of Clinton’s bipartisan breakthroughs was his agreement with Republicans that it was worthwhile to balance the federal budget and reform welfare at all. That required Clinton to stare down many liberals, including in his own administration.

Today, in a relevant parallel, even many Democrats would agree the exchanges that sell private insurance under the ACA need repair amid rising premiums and diminishing choice. But Trump has no chance of engaging Democrats over the exchanges unless he first dislodges House Republicans from their plan to deny up to 14 million people health coverage through unprecedented cutbacks in the public Medicaid program. Almost certainly, no Democrat in either chamber could back a bill with those reductions.

On tax reform—the next big fight—Democrats say that seriously involving them would require legislation that boosts middle-income families and simplifies the code, but doesn’t add to the federal deficit, disproportionately benefit the top earners, or impose a new tax on imports (as House Republicans are pushing). Democrats also want to apply part of the tax revenue from a repatriation of corporate profits parked overseas to fund domestic infrastructure investment.

At various points, Trump and some congressional Republicans have embraced each of those principles. But the draft plan House Republicans have developed embodies none of them. Instead it prioritizes sweeping cuts in corporate and personal tax rates. One nonpartisan estimate projected it would increase federal deficits by $3 trillion over the next decade while providing three-fourths of its tax cuts to the top 1 percent. That’s legislation, like the House health-care bill, aimed solely at Republican preferences. “If they repeat what happened on health care, it will be another debacle,” Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, told me.

Complicating the policy puzzle for Trump is the political challenge. Trump has provoked so much hostility from Democratic voters that the party’s elected officials must hesitate to work with him even if they agree with his ideas. In late March polling from Gallup, fewer than one in 12 Democrats said they approved of Trump’s job performance. No previous president in Gallup polling had attracted positive job approval from less than one-fourth—and usually at least one-third—of the other party’s voters at this early point. Few Democratic office-holders can ignore that sentiment. One straw in that gale-force wind is that even seven of the 10 Democratic senators facing 2018 races in states Trump won are supporting the filibuster of Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination.

As Cole perceptively noted, that systemic opposition from Democrats may be the strongest force binding Trump to congressional Republicans. “What may anchor him [to us] is more negative than positive,” Cole said. But it’s also easy to imagine Trump cutting anchor from both sides. While Clinton employed triangulation to eventually reach bipartisan legislative agreements, Trump hasn’t displayed anything approaching the patience, mastery, or dexterity required to consistently follow that path. If Trump triangulates, he’s more likely to repudiate both parties than try to reconcile them.