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.