Prior to the 2012 election, Democrats had a theory: Republicans were in the grip of a “fever” that had led them to oppose and attempt to obstruct President Barack Obama at every turn. If Obama won a second term, the fever would break.
President Obama himself floated the idea. It turned out to be completely (and predictably) wrong. It wasn’t an irrational mania that led congressional Republicans to do all they could to block the president’s agenda, but abiding philosophical and policy disagreements that weren’t going to dissipate with Obama’s re-election. Sure enough, the president’s second term was as acrimonious as the first.
Now, though, maybe the GOP fever — to use Obama’s insulting term — has indeed broken. After years of touting principle over compromise, the Republican Party has fallen into the arms of a presidential candidate who views government as little else than dealmaking.
It turns out that every old Washington graybeard who laments that members of the opposing parties don’t get along the way they used to, every panelist on a PBS program tsk-tsking Washington gridlock, every political scientist who professes to be shocked at the allegedly unprecedented partisanship of the GOP, now has his ideal Republican presidential candidate: none other than Donald J. Trump.
Has there been another modern presidential candidate who has believed so sincerely and deeply in negotiation, almost as an end in itself? For Trump, nearly everything is an opening bid.
The two weeks since he effectively won the Republican nomination have been devoted to the theme of flexibility. He’s abandoned his former opposition to increasing the minimum wage, said his proposal for a massive tax cut for the wealthy might end up being a tax increase for the wealthy, and even deemed his iconic temporary Muslim ban just “a suggestion.”
Trump favors strategic ambiguity — on everything. He says he doesn’t want to be too explicit about his foreign policy because it will tip off our adversaries about our intentions. He apparently doesn’t want to tip anyone off at home, either. An adviser has been quoted in the press saying that Trump won’t settle on his domestic policy until the period between his election and his inauguration.
One of Trump’s key insights in the primaries was that Republican voters didn’t particularly care about policy. Even he may be taking it a little far, though. Outside of his longstanding ideological core of skepticism of trade and opposition to the country’s foreign commitments, Trump’s views are written in sand. Even on trade and foreign policy, he often expresses his positions simply in terms of getting better deals.
There’s nothing wrong with horse-trading, of course. But it isn’t an end in itself. The philosophy that informs the dealmaking is important. What Paul Ryan or Chuck Schumer considers a good deal on Social Security or Medicare — another area where the Trump team is suddenly signaling flexibility after he ran opposing changes in the programs — is very different given their ideological beliefs and policy goals.
It is a testament to Trump’s political skill, and the strange crosscurrents on the right, that the businessman won the Republican nomination with the support or acquiescence of the same voices who have been most opposed to Beltway negotiations.
If nothing else, he will counter the stereotype of contemporary Republicans as obstructionist and rigidly ideological. Trump will portray himself as more practical and more centrist, or at least more ideologically unpredictable, than Hillary Clinton. She is locked in eternal enmity with Republicans; Trump just wants to get things done, with whoever happens to be sitting around the table.
No one could have predicted that the era of tea-party ferment — focused on first principles and hostile to half-a-loaf compromises — would end by elevating a man who considers himself a negotiator above all else. For now, the Republican rallying cry has gone from “Give me liberty, or give me death” to “Let’s make a deal.”
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: email@example.com.