After meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday, top congressional Democrats issued a surprising announcement: The president had agreed to spend $2 trillion on infrastructure.
Cynics quickly pointed out that there was no agreement on anything else, and the missing details were more than trivial. Among other things, the two sides had not discussed how to raise the money, settled on the sort of projects that would be funded or agreed on how much of a project’s cost would be covered by the feds.
Add in the extensive shade-throwing after the meeting by Republican leaders, whose names had not been on the White House guest list, and you’ve got a whole lot of “not happening.”
So it would be reasonable to conclude that this whole episode is not about building infrastructure or making policy. Instead, it may just be about sending a message that Trump and congressional Democrats are still trying to get things done, even as they are fighting a steel cage death match over House Democrats’ efforts to subpoena every piece of paper not yet shredded in the White House and Trump’s businesses.
Trump has an obvious interest in sending such a message, as do his antagonists in Congress. House Republicans, not so much; they hope to retake the House majority next year by portraying Democrats as so deranged by Trump that they neglected their chores.
Yet as comfortably as this cynicism fits, there are reasons to think we’re watching something more consequential here. Trump promised on the campaign trail to do a big infrastructure spending bill, and for better or worse, he takes his campaign promises seriously. And core Democratic constituencies — organized labor and state and local governments — have a lot to gain from a bigger federal budget for these projects.
So Trump’s interests align well with Democrats when it comes to the goal they announced Tuesday. The president may also see the differences between the two sides over how to raise and spend the money as a test of his deal-making skills. And if no deal ensues, he has a handy villain to blame for his failure to deliver on that particular campaign promise.
Democrats, meanwhile, approached Tuesday’s meeting by laying down three demands that are potential deal-breakers for Trump: a tax increase sufficient to fund massive infrastructure spending (“substantial, new and real revenue”), projects that mitigate the impacts of climate change and protections for labor and businesses owned by women and minorities. The first one is probably the biggest hurdle, and it may be insurmountable.
The question for Democrats, then, is can they come up with a big, bold plan that is appealing to Trump, whose support may well be enough to overcome recalcitrant congressional Republicans? Is getting $2 trillion for infrastructure enough in and of itself, or are those three preconditions so important that they’re willing to kill the deal over them? And more fundamentally, are they willing to give the president a win heading into his re-election campaign?
The cynics out there think the answer to those questions is obvious. I hope they’re wrong, but we’ll know soon enough.
Jon Healey is deputy editorial page editor for the Los Angeles Times.