Red-State Dems Thread the Needle in Working With Trump
In the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Thursday, an unusual entourage joined President Trump to watch him nix a coal mining rule put in place by his predecessor.
There was the usual smattering of Republican lawmakers, of course, and a group of coal miners decked out in their gear. But among this small crowd were also two Democratic senators, Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Manchin, flanking the president as he spoke.
Manchin delivered a few remarks, too, to express his pride. “These are all West Virginians,” he noted, gesturing toward his home-state miners.
As Trump signed the resolution, they all crowded in for a photo.
“Come on, Heidi,” Trump said, urging the North Dakota lawmaker to slide in directly behind him. “Even though she’s sort of a Democrat.” Everyone laughed.
The chummy vignette seemed an awkward fit in this time of intense partisanship. In the first month of his presidency, Trump has inspired a visceral reaction from Democrats across the country, with thousands of protesters spilling into town-hall meetings and the streets to oppose his agenda and his Cabinet nominees.
This popular uprising has in some quarters come to be known as “the resistance,” and it has demanded corresponding outrage from Democratic lawmakers. But not all: A few have instead veered right, toward 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., to stand by Trump’s side and work with him even as he remains a polarizing figure with historically low approval numbers.
Call theirs the path of least “resistance” — except this road comes with political peril.
Ten Democratic senators will face re-election fights next year in states where Trump won; of those, five hail from states where he won by double digits. But with their party base screaming for blood, those incumbents could find themselves swimming against the partisan tide in both directions, torn between working with Trump or denouncing him.
In a meeting at the White House earlier this month, one of those vulnerable Democrats, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, explained his compromise approach to the president. “I will work with you when I can,” Tester said, according to a Montana NBC affiliate, “and I will hold you accountable when I must.”
Heitkamp and Manchin also attended the meeting and took part in its photo ops. A few months earlier, both had trekked to Trump Tower in Manhattan to discuss potential roles in Trump’s Cabinet.
Ultimately, the incoming president did not pick any Democrat as a Cabinet secretary. “I’m not sure if he looks at the title, whether you’re Democrat or Republican,” Manchin said, “even if the people around him do. ... But I don’t think that registers with [Trump].”
Trump and Manchin share a flexible view of partisanship. The former, of course, was a registered Democrat before he ran for president as a Republican — and even then, he treated the GOP as an enemy more than a natural ally. The latter, once rumored to be considering a party-affiliation flip of his own, describes himself as a “West Virginia Democrat,” which he considers a separate species from the Washington, D.C. type.
“We still have a little common sense,” Manchin said, grinning as he explained the difference.
RealClearPolitics met with him last week in his Senate office to discuss his strategic working relationship with Trump. In one corridor there hangs a quote from former President John F. Kennedy: “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer.”
The following day Manchin would head to the White House once again, this time to applaud the president for signing a resolution halting a federal regulation affecting coal mines. And Manchin was buzzing about this small coup.
“I’ve got more agreement from [Trump] than I got from any other administration in a month,” Manchin said.
On paper, Trump would seem a Republican president uniquely fit to work with Democrats. He has shown himself to be ideologically fluid, promoting some policies on the campaign trail that made Republicans wince. And he promised to work as a pragmatic dealmaker in Washington.
But his presidency has so far played out differently, with the new commander-in-chief alienating many Democrats, and even some Republicans, with a controversial first month in office. Trump, ideologically flexible though he is, has also surrounded himself with committed partisans, including his chief of staff, former Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, and other top aides who operate from an ideological perch, such as his chief strategist Steve Bannon.
This dynamic was thrown into stark relief during the White House meeting earlier this month, where Trump told Manchin he would be open to working on immigration reform. But the White House later said the president still opposes the most recent compromise worked out by the Senate, a likely template for any future legislative efforts.
“They walked it back because of the politics of it,” Manchin said. “I know that he’s sincere. ... I think in his heart of hearts that he would look at something.”
If some Democrats consider Trump heartless, Manchin has aimed to become a sort of party liaison to him, building a relationship in the process.
“He has my cellphone,” Manchin said, “and he might just call and say, ‘Hey Joe, this is Donald.’ And I say, ‘Yes, sir -- what can we do?’”
Meanwhile, the former West Virginia governor insists that he has not received pressure or pushback from Senate Democratic leadership to oppose Trump.
“They know I’m my own person, and I’m sure there were people who didn’t want me to go talk to him,” Manchin said. “There was never any doubt in my mind. Would I go and talk to Donald Trump? Absolutely.”
The idea of bipartisan outreach wouldn’t seem so bold regarding any other administration. But Democrats have firmly rejected Trump from the outset — with protests and angry constituents at town-hall meetings harkening back to the Tea Party movement in 2009 and 2010, which propelled Republicans to historic gains in Congress.
For red-state Democrats like Manchin, the challenge will be to find the “common denominator between the agenda of the grassroots organizations and all the voters in the state, including the Trump voters,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee this election cycle.
“My view is that these senators are going to be reaching out to all the people in their state, progressives and others, and making the best decision,” Van Hollen added.
Even some of the more liberal senators can sympathize with this political tug-of-war. Oregon’s Ron Wyden recalled his recent appearance at a town hall in Linn County, where Trump won by roughly 28 percentage points. “Each person is going to kind of carve out their own approach,” Wyden said.
“I live in a blue island in a big red sea,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, who hails from Illinois, “and a lot of these folks are not that lucky politically.”
Even then, Durbin faces acute pressure from his party’s base that he cannot always satisfy. “There are people in my state that want me to vote ‘no’ on everything,” the Democratic whip said. “They’re mad at me because I voted for some of Trump’s nominees.”
The art of politics is often a delicate balance between stoking partisan fire and then containing it. But recent political trends have seemed to incentivize burning everything down. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a leading face of the Democratic opposition to Trump, has promoted such an unyielding approach.
“It's not an either-or choice, and Democrats who are making it out to be aren't doing their colleagues in tough races any favors,” said one Democratic strategist who works on Senate campaigns.
Manchin, for his part, insists the popular zeal against Trump hasn’t worried him. In his mind, it reflects only a sliver of the Democratic spectrum.
“I hope our base is bigger than that,” he said. “I think we have a very large silent base. Just good, hard-working people that want fairness and equitable treatment.”
He also shrugs off the possibility that Democratic groups could work to punish him in his re-election race for working with Trump. Complete intransigence, he said, simply is not an option. You might say he is comfortable resisting “the resistance.”
“If they think we’re just going to go down and hunker, and the base wants you to vote against everything, and vote against everybody and vote against everything they want to do from the White House,” Manchin said, “then I’m sorry, I’m not part of that. I’m just not.”
“If I’ve not gone down the path that they want, total resistance? If they would push back, they have a right to do that,” Manchin added. “That’s fine.”
James Arkin contributed to this report.