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Democrats gamble by putting policy priorities first

Trump believes Democrats are sticking to the script Mitch McConnell and congressional Republicans wrote in the Obama era. He has this backwards.
Image: 58th U.S. Presidential Inauguration
WASHINGTON, USA - JANUARY 20: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) President-elect Donald Trump greets House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other Congressional...

"Republicans want to fix DACA far more than the Democrats do," Donald Trump falsely claimed over the weekend, unaware of the irony of such a sentiment coming from a president who rescinded DACA. The Republican added that Democrats simply want to use protections for Dreamers "as a campaign issue."

Trump has pushed this line before, and it continues to be demonstrably ridiculous. But the president is inadvertently raising an important point about partisan asymmetry, about which he's making faulty assumptions.

In Trump's mind, Democrats are effectively sticking to the script Mitch McConnell and congressional Republicans wrote in the Obama era: Just say no. To work constructively or in a bipartisan fashion might give voters the impression that the White House is governing well. It's therefore better, the GOP decided, to block everything possible as part of a maximalist attempt at obstruction. When the exasperated public expresses frustration, just blame the White House for failing to lead effectively.

Trump apparently assumes this is what Dems are doing. They're not. In fact, the president has this exactly backwards: Democrats keep offering bipartisan deals on immigration -- I believe we're up to four, at last count -- precisely because they'd rather have DACA protections for Dreamers in the short term than have a political wedge later on.

If Dems wanted to use DACA "as a campaign issue," they wouldn't keep putting credible solutions on the table. They'd do the opposite, trying to scuttle bipartisan deals.

What's more, this isn't limited to immigration. For good or ill, Democrats are doing the exact opposite of what McConnell did in the Obama era: they're putting policy goals above political goals, even if it means stepping all over their own campaign platform. The Washington Post had an interesting piece the other day noting that some of the ideas in the Dems' "Better Deal" agenda were included in last week's spending deal:

"This budget agreement shows that the Better Deal agenda is more than a set of ideas; now, it's going to be real policies," said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) in a statement. "It delivers on exactly what we laid out last year: rural broadband, child care and assistance with college tuition."In negotiations, Democrats checked off several items in the Better Deal, a compendium of policies backed by Democrats in the past and brainstormed in meetings last spring and summer. The new items include $5.8 billion for the Child Care Development Block Grant program; $20 billion in infrastructure spending, including rural broadband funds, with no corresponding cuts; and a special joint committee on fulfilling pension obligations, with the results to be voted on by the end of the year.

The original plan was for Democratic candidates to take these ideas to the electorate and say, "Vote for us and we'll tackle these priorities." Now those priorities have already been checked off the nation's to-do list -- in a bill Trump will take at least some credit for.

In the Obama era, when Republicans adopted an obstructionist posture unlike anything in modern American history, the party had to accept a calculated risk: GOP leaders would push aside their own priorities in the hopes of creating dysfunction and undermining a Democratic White House. Even if Obama offered genuine compromises, the party had to stick together and reject every offer, on practically every issue.

Trump-era Democrats, meanwhile, are willing to accept incremental gains. Dems never really hesitated, for example, to pocket some victories in last week's budget deal, because they'd rather have the substance than the campaign cudgel. It's also why they're also willing to accept some concessions on immigration in exchange for DACA protections for Dreamers, rather than exploit the issue in the fall.

Or put another way, Democrats care about their priorities more than they care about undermining Trump. If Dems are able to strike some deals to advance a few priorities, they'll accept the compromises as the cost of doing business.

That's a price Republicans weren't willing to pay during Barack Obama's presidency. To paraphrase a sports cliché, undermining Obama wasn't the most important thing for the GOP; it was the only thing. McConnell wasn't especially shy at the time when making this point.

In hindsight, the unyielding party-of-no posture was terrible for the country, but it wasn't necessarily terrible for the Republican Party. The more they refused to work constructively, the more their unprecedented scorched-earth scheme paid electoral dividends: voters rewarded the House GOP with a majority in 2010, and the Senate GOP with a majority four years later. Now, Republicans control all of the levers of political power, facing no punishment whatsoever from the electorate for their tactics.

Will Democrats thrive by pursuing a more constructive strategy? We'll find out soon enough, but the significance of the party's gamble needs to be considered head on.