Trump Can Win at Foreign Policy in a Divided Government
With midterms next week, the makeup of Congress in January 2019 is anyone’s guess. If 2016 taught us anything, it’s that President Trump’s political prowess should not be discounted or underestimated. It is possible, however, that he will soon be leading a divided government. While many of the news stories exploring this prospect focus on the subpoena power of a potential Adam Schiff chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee and the likelihood of more congressional investigations into the Trump campaign, the president can still establish clear foreign policy wins, even without full Republican control of Capitol Hill.
Republicans have been incredibly supportive of Trump and his foreign policy priorities, and the administration is surely bracing for “oversight” that either chamber controlled by the Democrats could bring. However, the president still has the upper hand in foreign policy decision making, and with potentially a stalled domestic legislative agenda, this arena gives him the opportunity to deliver on his plans leading up to the 2020 presidential election.
I’ve laid out five objectives for getting things done in 2019:
- Find the deal makers: The Republican primary circus of 2016 could pale in comparison to what’s in store from the Democrat party. Especially in the Senate, we’ve already seen the grandstanding of several first-term senators ready to take on the mantle of Barack Obama. The people running for president will have no interest in bipartisanship. To the contrary, they will see working with Trump as a weakness in their fight for the nomination. However, there are plenty of leaders in the House and Senate who want to get work done and care deeply about national security; focus on them.
- Learn from past presidents: Take a lesson from President Obama, and don’t go around Congress. When given the opportunity to work with lawmakers on the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement, Obama chose to forgo the hard fight of treaty ratification and instead ruled by executive order. And now the United States is party to neither pact. The more difficult route, especially in a divided Congress, is to work with them, but it’s the only way to ensure a legacy and a long-term gain.
- Rally the country around China: It seems impossible that any Democrat with a shot at winning the nomination would promote a softer stance on countering China. While there may be disagreement on methods, the administration can find bipartisan support in its pushback here. In my consultations with Democrats recently, we’ve remarked at just how effective the president has been at truly changing the dialogue in Washington on China. The inevitable ascent of that Asian nation at the expense of the U.S. will be a rallying cry for both parties, and a political winner for Trump.
- Prioritize war theaters: Democrats have already signaled that they will not continue the current spending levels for the military that Trump achieved with a Republican-controlled Congress. As a bargaining chip, Democrats will attempt to extract concessions for their domestic programs—which will likely face fierce resistance from the House Freedom Caucus. The administration will need to prioritize the key foreign theaters in which America wants to maintain a presence, with an increasing look to Asia.
- Soft power is still a winner: While soft-power spending doesn’t seem like a traditional win for Trump, it can be. The president’s experienced USAID Administrator, Mark Green, is focused on reforming foreign aid, bringing countries into self-reliance and aligning resources (i.e. U.S. taxpayer money) with more accountability. Even the dovish proponents of foreign aid can agree that the reports uncovering massive corruption and waste in many of our foreign aid programs show the need for reform. By focusing on modernization, accountability and promoting best practices, the administration can shine light on these areas and deliver results demonstrating that soft power actually works.
A divided government doesn’t have to be a death blow to foreign policy. Being bipartisan is the farthest thing from fashionable in Washington right now, but the president has a few key areas of advantage where it would behoove the administration to court Democrats, majority party or not. While I still wouldn’t count out the president’s capacity to propel the GOP to victory, these objectives are transferrable no matter which party is in power. Most Republicans have lined up behind the Trump foreign policy agenda, while Democrats lack a cohesive, unifying message or guiding philosophy on where they would lead the country internationally if in power. In the meantime, President Trump can still win on this front.