Schumer leaves door open to work with Trump—on his terms

Sen. Chuck Schumer kicked off his first official day as leader of the Democratic minority Tuesday with a speech signaling a willingness to cooperate with president-elect Donald Trump in some areas—suggesting he isn’t planning on adopting the total-obstruction strategy employed by the GOP against President Obama

Schumer mentioned infrastructure investments and tax and trade reform as areas of possible cooperation, while vowing to fight “tooth and nail” on other issues, including a repeal of health care reform.

“To the extent that the President-elect and the Republican majority pursue policies that help Americans and are consistent with our values, we stand ready and willing to work with them,” Schumer said in his speech on the Senate floor outlining the Democratic strategy.

Schumer has a better relationship with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) than his predecessor, Harry Reid, did and he is seen as willing to reach across the aisle and hammer out deals with Republicans. “Schumer can be very tough but I don’t think he manifests the same kind of edge that Harry Reid could,” Democratic strategist Bob Shrum said. And Trump, a fellow New Yorker, told Schumer in a meeting that he likes him better than he likes most Congressional Republicans. (Schumer dismissed this as “flattery.”)

Still, the new Minority Leader was quick to bat down the perception that he would cozy up to the president elect, saying in his speech he would not be a “rubber stamp” for Trump and his policies. “Ninety, 95 percent of the time we’ll be holding his feet to the fire,” Schumer told CNN. “But we’re Democrats. We’re not going to just oppose things to oppose them.”

The Senate’s liberal wing, including Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have echoed Schumer’s willingness to work with Trump on certain issues. But some progressives took exception. Reid, a liberal political commentator on MSNBC, tweeted that the speech sounded like Schumer wanted to “collaborate rather than fight.”

But Democratic strategists endorsed Schumer’s position, saying the party cannot be seen as obstructionist because it clashes with its brand as the party that believes government can be a force for good.

In a recent interview, Obama called McConnell’s obstruction “pretty smart and well executed,” from a tactical perspective. Obama ran on the promise that he could transcend party divisions and change Washington, but McConnell’s take-no-prisoners approach made that vow look like a “fantasy” and won Republicans seats in Congress, Obama said.

But that doesn’t mean the same strategy would work for Democrats. As former Clinton staffer Jesse Ferguson noted in a USA Today op-ed, voters who are dissatisfied with the federal government tend to vote for Republicans. So if Democrats foment gridlock and trigger more dissatisfaction with government, they could just be creating more Republican voters.

By signaling a limited willingness to work with Trump, Schumer may be setting a trap for the Republicans. If Congress makes tax cuts for the wealthy a priority but fails to pass a job-creating infrastructure bill, Democrats can argue that Trump and his party betrayed his base of working-class voters.

He hinted at this in his floor speech Tuesday. “If you abandon change and simply embrace the shop-worn, hard right, pro-corporate, pro-elite policies diametrically opposed to the many campaign themes that helped you win working class votes and get you elected, your presidency will not succeed,” Schumer said. “We Democrats will hold you accountable.”

For Schumer to cooperate with Trump, the president elect would have to be willing to break with Republican leaders in the House, who are unlikely to support spending that would increase the deficit.

“Either we get policies enacted we’ve wanted for a long, long time or we don’t and we have made clear for people that [Trump’s] the one breaking his promises,” a Senate Democratic aide explained.

“I think that the possibility of them being partners really relies on whether Trump is willing to buck his own party and provide an avenue for Chuck Schumer to advance the Democratic Party’s goals,” said Brian Fallon, a former Schumer spokesman who worked on the Clinton campaign.

It remains to be seen whether Trump takes Schumer up on his offer to work together. Either way, Schumer will say he tried.