As Donald Trump Heads to Congress, a New Polarization Is Hardening
Posted by hkarner - 1. März 2017
Source: The Wall Street Journal
An inability to find common ground could test the president’s agenda
It was possible, not so long ago, to imagine Donald Trump to be such an unconventional figure that he could bust apart traditional partisan alliances and use his populist approach to create new kinds of political coalitions.
As President Trump gets set to appear before a joint session of Congress for the first time Tuesday night, that possibility seems a long way off.
Instead, just over a month into his term, Mr. Trump stands as an exceptionally polarizing figure. He inspires intense support among his admirers and equally intense animosity among his detractors, with remarkably few Americans standing in the middle without a strong view. Everybody appears to have an opinion about Donald Trump, and those opinions already appear locked in.
Perhaps more surprising for this nontraditional political figure, this polarization is falling along traditional partisan lines, with those calling themselves Republicans lining up solidly behind him and those calling themselves Democrats lining up solidly against him. That may be the biggest sign that he is well on his way to remaking the composition of the two political parties. Out in the country, if not necessarily in Washington, it appears that Republicanism is increasingly defined as support for Mr. Trump, while being a Democrat is being defined as opposing Mr. Trump.
For the president as well as the lawmakers arrayed before him in the Capitol Tuesday, this picture poses some stark challenges. How can anyone find bipartisan common ground in such an environment? To the extent it once seemed Democrats actually would agree with Mr. Trump’s impulse to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on job-producing infrastructure projects, or his quest for a new path on trade, has that possibility already evaporated?
In short, is the country already locked into an entirely new but equally paralyzing phase of political polarization?
Those questions emerge in a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. Almost 9 in 10 self-identified Republicans, and just over 9 in 10 Trump voters, say they approve of the job the president is doing, while almost 9 in 10 Democrats, and just over 9 in 10 Hillary Clinton voters, say they disapprove of his job performance.
Usually, at such an early stage in a presidency, a fair number of Americans say they just aren’t sure yet what they think of the job their new president is doing. Yet now, just 8% say they aren’t sure whether they approve or disapprove of the job Mr. Trump is doing.
Similarly, it would be normal for a large chunk of Americans to hold positive views of even a new president they don’t agree with. At this stage of Republican George W. Bush’s presidency, one-third of Democrats said they had positive feelings toward the new White House occupant. By the same token, at this phase of Barack Obama’s presidency, one-third of Republicans said they had positive feelings toward the new Democratic president
Today? Only 9% of Democrats say they have positive feelings about Mr. Trump.
This picture creates some problems for the lawmakers who will assemble in the Capitol for Mr. Trump’s address. Congressional Republicans have the numbers, barely, to power through pieces of a Trump agenda on their own, just as Democrats, early in Mr. Obama’s term and with bigger majorities, powered past unified Republican opposition and passed an economic stimulus package and the Affordable Care Act.
But the Democratic president and his party discovered over time that the complete absence of bipartisan support provides a fragile foundation for big and important national initiatives—a problem illustrated starkly at loud and angry town halls filled by health-law opponents in the summer of 2009. Ultimately, the stiff GOP antipathy toward Mr. Obama’s agenda rallied conservatives and fueled Democrats’ big losses in midterm elections in 2010 and 2014.
Fast forward to today. Mr. Trump and Republicans in Congress may be able to muscle through on their own big changes to the Affordable Care Act, a broad tax cut, billions of dollars to fund that controversial wall along the Mexican border and a budget likely to call for a big jump in military spending and significant cuts in some domestic programs. Yet even some Republicans are squeamish about details of that agenda, and the raucous town halls members of Congress have been holding in recent days have put them on notice that changes in the government’s health program, in particular, carry some significant downside risks.
Those risks could be diminished if Mr. Trump could find some common ground with Democrats. But it isn’t clear that Democrats whose grass-roots supporters now demand wall-to-wall opposition to all things Trump are even interested. Their animosity toward the man, and toward his appointees in areas such as the environment and education, seem to be blocking potential common ground elsewhere.
The bottom line is this: Political polarization helped produce the voter anger that in turn produced President Trump. A new version of the same old cycle may be starting.