There is a reason bipartisan government is so hard these days. It’s not because “both parties” are intransigent or because “both parties” have moved to the “extremes.” It’s because what were once widely seen as moderate, commonsense solutions are pushed off the table by a far right that defines compromise as acquiescence to its agenda.
And since I don’t get to say it often, I want to thank President Donald Trump for making this abundantly clear during the unexpectedly televised part of his meeting with congressional leaders on Tuesday. At one point, he stumbled into a sensible and compassionate approach to the plight of Dreamers – immigrants brought here illegally by their parents when they were children. They have grown up entirely as Americans.
Temporarily, the “build a wall” president was transformed into a champion of what he called a “bill of love.”
Trump’s excursion into the politics of charity was prompted when Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., asked if he would support a “clean DACA bill.” By this she meant legislation that would maintain President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program without funding a border wall or making any other concessions to immigration hard liners.
Trump, who had set DACA to expire this March, was ready to roll. “Yeah, I would like to do it,” he said. And he went farther, expressing a desire for “comprehensive immigration reform” that would legalize the status of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.
It fell to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to remind Trump of his actual position, or at the least the position he has espoused most often, by suggesting politely that “you need to be clear, though. … You have to have security.”
The newly gracious Trump was pummeled by parts of his right-wing base for embracing the view of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whom he had derided in 2016 for calling on us to love our immigrant brothers and sisters. At 7:16 p.m. on Tuesday, the president retreated on Twitter: “As I made very clear today our country needs the security of the Wall on the Southern Border, which must be part of any DACA approval.” Of course, if he had been “very clear,” he wouldn’t have needed to send that tweet.
Most of Trump’s critics played his performance as a sign of his ignorance about the issues before him, and, yes, of his own policy commitments. It was also an object example of his habit in face-to-face meetings of agreeing with nearly everything everyone says.
There’s a lot to this, but the larger lesson is more important: Progress in many areas where the parties could work together is being blocked because of the need for Trump and the Republican Party to kowtow to conservative ultras.
In his unguarded moment, Trump simply reflected the belief of the vast majority of Americans that it is ridiculous and cruel to deport the Dreamers.
Trump has acknowledged this before. It was ironic that hours after Trump’s triple axel on the question, Judge William Alsup halted the president’s original effort to end DACA by citing Trump’s own words to make the case against him.
“Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military?” Trump had said last September. Well, the other Trump seemed to want to do just that.
Trump is also stuck with his promise to build the border wall despite the fact that a USA Today survey of Congress last fall found that fewer than 25 percent of Republicans were willing to endorse the plan. But the wall is all about his brand.
And the GOP’s nativist wing was aghast that he might dare consider regularizing the status of immigrants here illegally, something that Americans, according to the polls, overwhelmingly accept must happen at some point.
The cost of extremism is obvious on other matters as well. The Children’s Health Insurance Program is a genuinely bipartisan achievement that, at low cost, gets health care to 9 million young Americans. But the renewal is hung up because House Republicans are demanding that it be paid for by cutting Obamacare spending on various preventive measures. Really? Since when is prevention a partisan issue?
There are arguments between the left and the right worth having. But as Trump made clear, there are many problems we could solve if ideological posturing did not lay such a heavy hand on our politics. We might even find ways to love each other, at least a little bit.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.