On September 6, President Trump surprised many political observers when he agreed to compromise with Congressional Democratic leaders Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Nancy Pelosi and make a three-part deal that provided hurricane relief to Texas, raised the national debt ceiling, and funded government operations until December. Trump justified his decision to strike a bargain with Democratic Congressional leaders rather than work with those of his own Republican Party by saying it was “very good” for the country.
In making this compromise, Trump went against conventional political expectations of working with the members of one’s own party and eschewing cooperation with the opposition party, particularly when one’s own party controls both houses of Congress, as the Republicans do. Trump probably had several reasons for agreeing to the compromise. First, Trump wanted and needed a “win” after several months of political defeats and difficulties (failure to repeal Obamacare, the ongoing Russian investigation, chaotic-looking White House staff turnover, the Charlottesville/Confederate monuments controversy, North Korean nuclear activities, etc.). He got the “win,” much due to accident: The deal was not devised by Trump and his advisors–who are not good at initiating legislation—but by the Democrats. But the deal was also done because of Trump’s non-ideological flexibility and willingness to compromise. Part of this is his simple opportunism—his willingness to do almost anything in order to ensure a “win” and get him better poll ratings, etc. But probably part of it is also his political instinct and knowledge that the American people want politicians to get beyond the opposition and gridlock in Washington and get things done that are “very good” for the country.
The Republicans and Democrats, of course, also think they are trying to do things that are “very good” for the country. The problem is that their two visions of what is “very good” for the country are incompatible in so many ways: border security vs. compassion for immigrants; lower taxes vs. funding for important government programs; lower health care costs vs. health care for all; anti-abortion vs. women’s rights; traditional marriage vs. gay and lesbian rights, etc. This makes it difficult if not impossible for the two major parties to compromise on many or most issues.
In making his compromise with the Democrats, Trump took a middle way between the Democratic and Republican parties. In this case, the middle way was not an ideological compromise between the two parties, because the issues of hurricane relief, the debt ceiling, and government funding are not the kind of issues on which the Democrats and Republicans are deeply ideologically polarized. It was a more practical middle of finding a way to reach across the aisle and work with the opposition party. The issues were relatively noncontroversial and thus the compromise was perhaps relatively easy to attain. But still, Trump’s compromise is deeply symbolic and important. It shows that the Republican president is willing to work with the opposition party to achieve significant legislation (which he has not been able to do easily with his own party). Although this legislation was relatively non-ideological and temporary, it opens the possibility that Trump may make future compromises with the Democrats that are much more important and permanent.
One of the important social principles of the Catholic Church is the principle of the “common good”—“the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1906). This is the Catholic equivalent of what is “very good” for the country, as espoused by Trump and in their own ways by the two major parties. The Democrats and Republicans have not been able to enact their versions of the “common good” or what is “very good” for the country because their ideas are so mutually exclusive that their collision results in political gridlock in Washington. Trump and the Democrats were able to obtain an admittedly very limited version of the “common good” or what is “very good” for the country. Now, the Catholic idea of the “common good” includes adherence to many other principles of Catholic social teaching. Without getting into too many details, it seems safe to say that securing hurricane relief, raising the debt ceiling to avoid government default, and funding government activities are within the parameters of government actions that are in accord with Catholic social teaching. Thus, it would appear that Trump’s and the Democrats’ compromise was a good one by the standards of Catholic social teaching. But, again, the compromise was only a limited, relatively non-ideological agreement that will only last for a three-month period of time. The opportunistic motivations for it on both Trump’s and the Democrats’ parts do not ensure that such cooperation for the common good and the good of the country will occur in the future. And it does not mean that Trump, or the Democrats, or the Republicans will take government actions on much more important and controversial issues in the future that will meet the standards of Catholic social teaching.
But the compromise does provide a slight crack in the gridlock that might lead to a more positive way forward to actions that could contribute to the common good of the country. For example, in the wake of the compromise, Trump indicated that he was interested in working with the Democrats in crafting bipartisan immigration reform legislation–which if achieved would resolve a problem that has defied solution for decades. Another area where the parties could work together is infrastructure. On more polarized issues such as health care reform and tax reform, compromise is theoretically possible but has not taken place so far due to the unbending antagonism of the two parties. Thus, Trump’s surprising compromise, though not very important in itself, may point the way to more substantive positive accomplishments for the common good of the country in the future.
Image: Evan Vucci/Associated Press