The success of President Donald Trump's domestic agenda hangs precariously in the balance. Trump's approval rating has already hit historic lows for the first 100 days of a modern presidency, which is already emboldening defections from his own caucus on important pieces of legislation and also hampering his ability to persuade even moderate Democrats to work with him at all.
Trump is visibly angry that he has thus far been unable to deliver on a campaign promise he assumed would be a slam dunk: The repeal of Obamacare.
Trump is being fed bad information by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), and thus erroneously believes that conservatives in the House killed the AHCA, when in fact moderates and liberals were likely much more to blame (or credit, depending on your view on the AHCA's merit). Based on this information, reports are circulating widely that Trump has decided to try his hand at working with the Democrats on more moderate legislation — specifically, on legislation that would package his tax reform bill with a massive infrastructure spending hike.
In other words, it appears that President Trump is responding to the political equivalent of being stung by a wasp by thrusting his hand into a barrel full of poisonous snakes.
I spoke with more than one member of the Freedom Caucus yesterday who expressed what can only be described as borderline fury that they are serving as scapegoats for the failure of the AHCA. Most of that fury was directed at Ryan, who is believed to be intentionally misleading the president or at least intentionally downplaying moderate opposition to the bill in order to make the Freedom Caucus look bad. But they also chafed at Trump's public flogging of the Freedom Caucus on Twitter, believing that Trump should have been able to tell on his own that conservatives were more loyal to his agenda than moderates or liberals.
Trump isn't the only person in Washington, D.C., who places a high value on loyalty and jealously defends his ego. Almost every elected official has these traits to some degree, and Freedom Caucus members are not exempt. And the AHCA debacle illustrated an important point: Without the Freedom Caucus, the House GOP does not have a majority. If Trump completely alienates the Freedom Caucus, he will lose the ability to pass any bills at all without Democratic support.
Trump appears to be vastly overestimating both the trustworthiness of congressional Democrats and his own ability to sway them. The Democrats who remain in both the House and the Senate face tremendous pressure from their own base to vote against literally everything Trump does, if they have even the flimsiest pretext for doing so.
The one bill Democrats might reasonably be expected to support is Trump's trillion-dollar infrastructure spending plan. After all, Democrats have no plausible excuse to suddenly oppose government spending, especially when much of it will be funneled right back into their home districts and states. However, Trump appears to believe that he can kill two birds with one stone with a risky political maneuver: Combining the infrastructure spending plan with his tax reform bill.
Trump's belief is that by packaging his tax reform bill with a massive infrastructure spending plan, he can lure enough Democrats into the fold that he won't have to deal with the Freedom Caucus on either bill. If this truly is Trump's plan, he must have somehow missed the determination Democrats have thus far shown to deny him any political victory whatsoever — from their stonewalling over his Cabinet picks to their absurd opposition to Neil Gorsuch to their rhetoric, which has included calls for his impeachment since literally the first day of his presidency.
Why does Trump believe that members of Congress who are publicly implying that he committed treason with Russia will suddenly work with him on any bill that includes a massive corporate tax cut just because he asked them to?
The CBO score of any bill that includes $1 trillion in new spending and major corporate tax reform is likely to be absolutely brutal and will provide more than enough cover for both Democrats and Republicans to vote against it en masse. Worse, by publicly signaling his intention to work with Democrats, Trump visibly raises the profile of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who will doubtless use the opportunity to blast him and his legislation in the media at every opportunity.
Right now, Schumer and Pelosi are almost totally irrelevant, since neither has any meaningful power in Congress. If Trump openly states that he is going to attempt legislation that he knows he needs their support to pass, he makes them relevant, which will not even possibly have any net positive effect on the remainder of his first term. And at the end of the day, the inevitable result will be that his second major legislative priority will also go down to ignominious defeat after Schumer and Pelosi pull the rug out from under him, which will further damage his reputation as a dealmaker and imperil everything else he wants to do in his first four years.
Former President Barack Obama learned to his dismay that there is a limit to what a president can do with a pen and a phone, and courts have already shown — fairly or unfairly — that they are much more inclined to check Trump's executive power than they were Obama's. If Trump wants to accomplish big things during his presidency (including his border wall, his trade deal renegotiations, and his tax reform plan), he absolutely must navigate an increasingly difficult path with Congressional leadership.
The first step in navigating that path successfully is trusting congressional Democrats as little as possible — zero, if he can help it. It is understandable (if unfair) that Trump feels burned by the Freedom Caucus, but he stands a much better chance of succeeding by biting the bullet and negotiating with them on a tax reform plan that is separate from a massive infrastructure spending bill. Then, after tax reform has successfully passed, he can come back to infrastructure spending and attempt to woo Democrats with a standalone spending bill, if he wants to win a bipartisan victory of some sort. If he goes to the Democrats first, he risks poisoning the well with his own party irreparably and only getting bitten in the hand for a reward.