The central promise of the Trump administration – the repeal and replacement of Obamacare – has failed. The central premise of the Trump administration – that Donald Trump is a brilliant negotiator – has been discredited. In the process of losing a legislative battle, Trump has lost the theory of his presidency.
It was a profoundly personal rejection. Trump’s ignorance of policy details alienated legislators. His ill-timed threats backfired. His bonhomie fell flat.
The lessons, however, run deeper. Like other politicians before him, Trump ran for office arguing, in essence: Just give my party control of the elected branches of the federal government and massive change will quickly follow. Many Americans believed in this promise of winner-take-all government.
The American system of government – with its constipated Senate rules and its complicated House coalitions – is designed to frustrate such plans. But the closeness of recent national elections has encouraged partisan dreams of political dominance. Republicans had control of the House, Senate and presidency in the 108th Congress. Democrats had the same in the 111th Congress. Now Republicans have it all in the 115th Congress.
Total control is intoxicating. The winners feel like they have a mandate, even a mission. But the losers know, if they maintain partisan discipline and prevent achievements of the other side, they have a realistic chance of winning it all back. This leads to a cycle of hubris and obstructionism.
How can this cycle be broken? There is only one way. Someone must do genuine outreach, involving the credible promise of compromise, from a position of strength. It is the winners who must act first, taking the risk of offering a hand that may be slapped away. Then it is the political losers who have the responsibility to reward good faith.
Obamacare – passed in a partisan quick march and viewed by some Republicans as the focus of evil in the modern world – may not be the most promising ground for agreement. The same may be true for tax reform, which involves a thousand well-funded special interests. But genuine negotiation might be possible on an infrastructure bill. The same might be true on legislation designed to increase the skills – and deal with the dislocation – of 38 percent of American workers whose jobs are threatened by automation. And at least one culture-war issue belongs on the list: religious liberty.
Many religious conservatives imagined they would, at this point, be in a defensive crouch. The Obama administration had required the Little Sisters of the Poor to provide insurance coverage for sterilizations and the emergency contraceptive Plan B. Religious conservatives expected the Hillary Clinton administration to require the distribution of condoms at Mass (I exaggerate, but only a little).
Instead, unexpectedly, religious conservatives find themselves in a position of relative strength, as one of the main contributors to Trump’s victory. It is possible they will squander their standing on repeal of the Johnson Amendment that restricts political endorsements from the pulpit – a change that few have demanded and none really need. Instead, they could use their influence to encourage genuine pluralism, with benefits that are shared and nonsectarian.
What would the elements of a legislative compromise look like? It would need to allow institutions motivated by a religious mission – including religious schools and charities – to maintain their identity. Religious liberty involves, not just the freedom of individual belief but the freedom to create institutions that reflect a shared belief.
But any realistic agreement would also need to include broad anti-discrimination protections in employment and services – including for gay people – outside of the strong carve-out for religious nonprofits. Religious conservatives would need to accept sexual orientation as a protected group in economic interactions.
This is consistent with what Jonathan Rauch calls “the obvious compromise: protections for gay people plus exemptions for religious objectors.” In practice, this would allow religious people to organize colleges, hospitals and charities according to their beliefs. But the cake baker would need to bake for everyone. The florist would need to sell to everyone.
The strongest advocates on both sides of this issue will find any compromise abhorrent. But it could be powerful for religious conservatives to attempt outreach from a position of political strength, And Donald Trump, oddly, may be the leader to get this kind of deal. He broke ground among Republicans in recognizing LGBT rights in his convention speech. But he is also close to religious conservative leaders.
And just about now, Trump needs a way to reconstitute the meaning of his presidency.
Michael Gerson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.