There is nothing like a trip to our nation’s capitol to get a reality check.
A few weeks ago, I was in Washington for a conference: A Meeting to Construct the Peace After the War. It was sponsored by the No Labels Foundation, an organization which positions itself as a voice for the “New Center,” the tens of millions of Americans who feel abandoned by both the Democratic and Republican Parties. No Labels also supports the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus in Congress, whose 80-plus members have called for a National Strategic Agenda that addresses job creation, Social Security and Medicare funding, balancing the budget and energy independence.
There was a very insightful analogy presented at one discussion. If our government were a restaurant, all they’ve been offering on the menu is chicken and fish, which only appeal to the Left and the Right wings of the two parties. But the majority of the American people want steak because there’s a real craving to solve problems and get things done. They’re asking, “where’s the beef?” and the only way for to get steak on the menu is for some kind of centrist coalition to start cooking in Congress. And if that recipe for success doesn’t happen in the first 100 Days, I fear it never will.
With the Republican Party in control of the House and Senate, there is an opportunity to move new policy and legislation forward. And that calls for people that are willing to lead, negotiate and compromise. To cross the partisan divide, you have to advance policy and legislation that can give both sides something they want and infrastructure and tax reform are the two best avenues to accomplish that. According to research from the Stagwell Group, the number one and two campaign promises that Trump voters supported were building infrastructure and cutting taxes for individuals.
One of the biggest obstacles to finding some common ground in Congress is the polarization of the voting public. A Pew Research study shows that 41 percent of Democrats see the Republican as a threat to the nation’s wellbeing and 45 percent of Republicans see the Democratic Party as a threat to the nation’s wellbeing. Given how bitterly estranged that the majorities of both parties are, how do you bring people back towards the center?
Further complicating a move towards the center is that right now, the GOP seems mostly interested in repealing President Obama’s major policies. Some of Trump’s nominations and appointments are real head scratchers, where he’s named people whose background and policy views suggest they’re committed to dismantling the very departments they’re supposed to run. Scott Pruitt, the choice to head the EPA is a close ally of the oil and natural gas industries and doubts the science of climate change. Andrew Puzder, the Secretary of Labor nominee has not only opposed raising the minimum wage, but having any minimum wage at all. Plus, his company has been fined for more labor violations than any company in the fast food industry. These appointments reflect Trump’s lack of political experience and instincts. To so quickly sell out his base is truly astounding, but I’ve always doubted his economic commitment to working class people.
In terms of the discordant factions within the Republican Party, the Libertarians, the Evangelicals, the Tea Party, and the Establishment, the friction and fractures are not going to just go away. Winning has a way of sweeping problems under the carpet and right now, we have a kind of cease-fire. But if the establishment doesn’t start to recognize the base’s needs, those problems will become bigger, not smaller. What the Party needs to do is take advantage of this victory and use what political capital is available to try to address these issues.
There is also the credibility factor or more aptly, the lack of creditability factor. When Trump says millions of people illegally voted, this is a clear denial of the facts. It was a flat outright, unsubstantiated lie. Paul Ryan could still acknowledge reality and not withdraw support from Trump, but when he says, “No, I don’t really know how many people voted,” that is just such a dereliction of duty. I expect that stuff from Reince Priebus, but Ryan should know better. What are GOP leaders trying to gain by not standing up to Trump on outrageous claims such as the CIA was wrong on Russian hacking? That doesn’t mean abandoning him; it’s just basic accountability.
Speaking of lack of creditability, the media’s is also at an all-time low. Many people who maybe don’t follow the news as closely as we do say, “well, politicians are spreading false information, but the media is also doing it, so which is worse?” That’s what makes it harder for the media to hold fake news-ers accountable. There are a lot of people that are going to believe what they want to believe and it really comes from a profound mistrust of the entire system. And many people are likely to get their news from outlets that reinforce their view of the world, which mean different versions and interpretations of events and policies.
In this kind of political environment, there is no such thing as the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and without being forced to stick to the facts, Trump is able to manipulate the media on any given issue. And his use of Twitter as a platform to communicate directly to the American people ranges from masterfully calculating to ludicrously absurd. It’s hardly a statesman-like image for the leader of the free world, when some of his tweets bring to mind an Alec Baldwin impersonation.
Trump also doesn’t get the dangerous position he’s putting himself in by not separating himself from his businesses. I’m sorry, but putting his children in charge just doesn’t pass muster. And his opponents may be complaining that he’s not doing it, but they’re secretly hoping he doesn’t stop because it’s going to be the best way for them to discredit and burden his presidency. Every decision he will make is going to be second-guessed because of this conflict of interest. We’ve never had this in the history of American politics; this is what Banana Republics do where the dictator has all these businesses that make money on the side. Trump’s stubborn refusal could actually sink his administration.
While it’s possible Trump may be commonsensical on policy, when it comes to personality, a 70 year-old man who has lived a consequence and structure-free life, doing whatever he wants to do, whenever he wants to do it, is the last person who is likely to change. I think of myself as a practical optimist, one who bases his worldview on hard fact rather than blind faith. Looking ahead to 2017, on the bright side, there’s a good chance Trump will really try to get tax reform and infrastructure legislation done. On the other hand, it’s hard to be optimistic because of his inexperience and character flaws.
Lastly, despite what some apparatchiks have hubristically claimed, this election was not a mandate or a landslide victory. This is a very divided country. The working class base that Trump won is a very fragile, fickle electorate and he needs to focus on getting things done that will help working class Americans.
Going back to the original concept of a “centrist restaurant” in Washington, the two parties must put aside partisanship to best serve our nation. But to start preparing some policies and legislation that will satisfy disgruntled voters requires two seasonings that the GOP removed from its cookbook during the Obama Administration; compromise and collaboration. The fact is Donald Trump is not a chef; all he wants is credit for glowing reviews from the critics.
Over the next few months, there is a small window of opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to put some pragmatic steak on the grill. A bitter election that left a bad taste in so many of our mouths reflects an angry citizenry that is starving for change.