As Democrats portray Donald Trump as a dangerous leader for his party, most of them barely acknowledge he could be president. But some centrist Democrats say they’re ready and willing to work with the business mogul should he defeat their party’s nominee.
“The people will have a chance to vote. If Donald Trump is elected president there will be a great opportunity to sit down and have a conversation about what that agenda looks like,” explained Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), who has long backed Hillary Clinton. “If he’s president, we’re going to have disagreement. But we’d better all figure out how to come up with an agenda for the American people.”
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Getting ready for a potential Trump presidency in their home states may just be good politics for moderate senators such as Heitkamp, Jon Tester of Montana and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin. They’ll be top targets for Republicans in 2018, a midterm year that could favor the GOP if recent trends of lower turnouts in nonpresidential elections continue. And it’s a good bet that they’ll need Trump voters to keep their jobs.
Trump should easily win North Dakota and neighboring Montana this fall if past is prologue: Montana went to Bill Clinton in 1992, while North Dakota hasn’t gone Democratic since 1964. He’ll also certainly win West Virginia and be favored to win Missouri as well: Both states have been in the GOP column since 2000.
For Democrats in those states, ignoring Trump’s political success, and by extension his supporters, would be a risky move. So some Democrats say they can see some opportunities for working together during a hypothetical Trump presidency, given that the Republican front-runner has based his campaign on being a deal maker — unlike any other prominent GOP candidate this cycle.
Take Tester, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, whose job description calls for retaking the Senate by relentlessly linking incumbent Republicans to Trump in purple and blue states this year. But should Trump shock the pundits and win, Tester acknowledges that there are “for sure” things he can come together with Trump on, “as long as they’re good deals for America.”
“This place doesn’t work very well unless you’re able to work with folks. So I would hope so. I mean he’s got some pretty goofy opinions, but hopefully we’ve got some stuff we can work on,” Tester said.
Trump is driving away some Republicans with his departures from party orthodoxy, including calls for a higher minimum wage, more infrastructure spending and health care coverage, but Democrats would have a hard time resisting similar calls from a President Trump if he came to Capitol Hill with those priorities. Blockading such a Trump agenda wouldn’t be easy after Democrats have relentlessly attacked Republicans for refusing to improve Obamacare, craft a big deal on roads and bridges, and provide a higher wage for the working class.
Still, centrist Democrats sound strong notes of skepticism about a President Trump’s relationship with Congress: They think he’s got a bad habit of rewriting his policy platform on the fly from one day to the next. In the words of Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Trump’s policy portfolio seems “very schizophrenic.”
“I don’t know if he’d send one piece of legislation over in the morning, and then send the exact opposite legislation that afternoon,” McCaskill said. “You go down every single issue, he is all over the place. So I have no idea. I don’t think he knows. It’s clear to me he’s kind of making this up as he goes along.”
“I believe in the 80-20 rule. … Let’s find the 80 percent that we agree on and work to focus on that, and set aside the 20 percent and we’ll worry about that later,” said Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware. “Work with a President Trump might be a little more challenging. Might be 20-80.”
Republicans based much of the past six years on denying wins to President Barack Obama and it’s safe to say that Democratic leaders would not be eager to give Trump any wins if he were to take the White House. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, set to assume the role of caucus honcho in 2017, would not even consider the possibility of Trump beating Clinton and what that would mean for his job.
Neither would retiring Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — and most party-line Democrats seem to agree with their current leader.
“I can’t even discuss such a disgusting idea, OK? No. You’re saying if he’s elected president? Oh, I’m not going to talk about that. I can’t imagine something so horrible,” Reid said in an interview.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who is the subject of much vice presidential chatter, said “You’re not gonna get an answer out of me on that one.” And Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said Trump has lots of baggage to overcome and convince people in both parties that he’s serious about working with Congress.
“How do you overcome a lot of the statements that he’s made that are just not the values of America? And how do you get beyond that?” Cardin said, conceding: “Obviously, our system is strong enough to figure out a way.”
Yet for all the policy proposals that have sparked bipartisan condemnation — making Mexico pay for a wall on the southern border and banning Muslims from entering the United States — Trump’s entire campaign is built around the idea that he’s the one guy that can overcome partisan differences. He says he isn’t backed into ideological corners by the political class and is not beholden to special interests that hold sway in both parties.
When Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) signed off on a deal with Vice President Joe Biden that raised taxes on the rich at the end of 2012, Trump actually chided him for not going bigger. It’s a view that Republican leaders admit resonates more with voters these days than rank partisanship.
“People are very angry. They’re angry at Republicans, they’re angry at Democrats, they’re angry at Washington for not solving the biggest problems. So what they’ve done is nominate a candidate who’s of neither camp to basically shake things up,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas. “And hopefully help us to address some of these long-standing issues that we know are a problem.”
In interviews with Democrats, long-term fiscal problems generated the most enthusiasm among centrist lawmakers as areas of collaboration with a President Trump. But equal motivation may come from the idea of throwing away preconceived notions and entrenched partisan bickering that has defined the past six years in Washington.
Manchin, who represents a state in which Obama is very unpopular and that is poised to be a landslide for Trump, said his constituents are eager for someone that understands what’s become of manufacturing cities and coal country.
“My people are really hurting,” Manchin said. “They don’t believe this administration or Barack Obama really cares about them.”
And while Manchin is one of Clinton’s most vocal backers, she was just throttled by Sen. Bernie Sanders in the West Virginia primary. Manchin said he’s ready to deal with Trump should things go the other way — and he thinks Trump is ready to as well.
“What you see in the campaign and if he would be elected at that level, what you’re going to see is a little different,” Manchin said. “He didn’t get to where he got to by making a lot of bad deals.”