There will be plenty written in the days and weeks ahead about how this development reflects Trump's own unique personality, unsteady command of policy, and strong feelings of resentment towards Republicans in Congress. Stripping away the individual eccentricities of the current incumbent, however, leaves us with a self-identified conservative Republican president cooperating with congressional Democrats to move domestic policy to the left—which is hardly an unprecedented development. Our Asymmetric Politics framework can explain why Republican presidents seek such agreements, and why Democrats in Congress are also open to them.
One of the most reliable challenges facing Republican leaders is the relative unpopularity of conservative policies among American voters, especially in the domestic sphere. Even many citizens who consider themselves to be conservative Republicans do not support the substantial cuts to public benefits and programs that conservative doctrine prescribes. Despite years of promises, Republicans have so far failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act in large part because of worries from members representing swing districts that revoking health insurance from millions of Americans would prompt a serious backlash, and even pro-repeal politicians—Trump included—repeatedly denied that their replacement plans would result in a loss of coverage despite considerable evidence to the contrary.
Recognizing this danger, previous Republican presidents have found signature issues on which to break with their party's ideological orthodoxy by protecting or introducing popular left-leaning policies. George W. Bush passed the No Child Left Behind Act and the Medicare Part D prescription drug program; George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, an expanded Clean Air Act, and a raise in the minimum wage; and Ronald Reagan reached bipartisan agreements on immigration, transportation, and Social Security. As Matt Grossmann and I pointed out last month, Trump's record in office up until now has been distinctive for its comparative lack of significant left-of-center policy initiatives, despite ubiquitous media characterizations of Trump as possessing significantly less ideological or partisan fidelity than his Republican predecessors.
Trump knows as well as anyone that symbolic appeals to general anti-immigrant sentiment in the mass public can be electorally powerful, especially in Republican primaries. But he also realizes that a specific policy change subjecting the Dreamers, an especially sympathetic group, to mass deportation would be very unpopular. Though he acquiesced to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other immigration hawks in ordering an end to the DACA program earlier this month, Trump immediately sent signals that he was eager to come to an agreement with Congress to preserve the Dreamers' legal protections.
Some observers find it unusual not only that Trump would be willing to make such a deal, but that Democrats would take him up on it:
Slightly surprised Dems are working w/ Trump--even to advance their own agenda. Their attitude might have been: "Why give him ANY wins?"— Matt Lewis (@mattklewis) September 14, 2017
The idea that engaging in blanket opposition to a president's policies, regardless of their inherent merit, is smart politics because it causes voters to become disillusioned with the effectiveness of the incumbent administration was a major premise of Republican strategic behavior during the Obama years. Here again, though, the two parties are not mirror images of each other. Democrats don't like Trump any more than Republicans liked Obama, but they are much more likely to remain open to opportunities for policy-making cooperation than their partisan counterparts were during the previous administration.
The main reason for this, as we explained in Asymmetric Politics, is that the Democratic Party is a social group coalition, not an ideological movement. Democrats correctly perceive their constituents as more interested in achieving real-world policy accomplishments furthering their concrete group interests than in remaining true to abstract ideological doctrines or engaging in obstruction for purely electoral aims. Most Democrats are willing to share credit, even with the detested Trump, if they can successfully find a practical solution to the Dreamers' current legal predicament. They came to Washington to legislate, and will happily do so if they can deliver the policies favored by their own partisan base.
We are, of course, a long way from an actual bill hitting the president's desk, and there are many ways that the current agreement can fall apart. But if Trump maintains the capacity to learn from experience, he would do well to take note of the lesson offered by this week's events. He can be a consistently conservative president, or he can be a legislatively productive president. Maybe he'll wind up being neither. But it's really hard to be both.