How an Alternative Donald Trump Opening Act Might Have Unfolded

By Gerald F. Seib Features Dow Jones Newswires

Let's imagine an alternative opening act to the Trump presidency.

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Specifically, let's imagine a presidency that attempted from the outset to take advantage of the fact that Donald Trump isn't an ideological conservative or a traditional Republican, but rather a radical centrist who should be able to create unconventional, bipartisan coalitions.

Imagine this new president had given a different kind of inaugural address, one in which he didn't accuse the capital's political leaders of flourishing at the expense of its citizens but rather sketched out a vision of a new way of working with those leaders.

This presidency wouldn't have started with polarizing issues guaranteed to back both parties further into their corners: aiming to repeal the Democrats' signature health-care law and imposing a ban on travel from a set of Muslim-majority countries as the first step in fighting terrorism. Rather, it would have opened with two big initiatives in which at least a few Democrats would have been willing -- maybe even eager in some cases -- to cooperate: rebuilding American infrastructure and changing the nation's inefficient tax code.

This alternative presidency would have set out from the beginning to build bridges to the 10 Democratic senators up for re-election in 2018 from states Mr. Trump carried, and the 12 House members who represent districts Mr. Trump carried in 2016. In this Trump presidency, the cabinet he chose would have been populated with fewer ideological conservatives and instead would have included with some moderate Democrats.

As the Trump presidency approaches its 100-day mark Saturday, it's easy to imagine that Mr. Trump, given a do-over, might choose this kind of opening act. It would have capitalized on his strongest single asset, which is the fact that he isn't the product of the traditional party system but rather that rarest of things in Washington, a genuine free agent.

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The suspicion that Mr. Trump might wish he had chosen a different opening path is buttressed by the fact that the figures now ascendant in the administration's power structure -- son-in-law Jared Kushner, daughter Ivanka Trump, National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin -- all fit into this kind of nonpartisan mold.

On more practical terms, such an opening would have diminished rather than accentuated the power and leverage of the House Freedom Caucus, the band of the House's most conservative members who dealt the president his most grievous early blow in the collapse of the effort to repeal and replace Obamacare.

In a narrowly divided, highly partisan environment, the power of any such small group is enhanced because even a few votes spell the difference between success and failure. A president with a broader power base can't be held hostage by any one faction.

Mr. Trump's populist appeal isn't rooted in partisanship but, in many ways, actually should transcend partisanship and ideology. That is seen in a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. The survey shows that basic economic issues are more important to Americans right now than are other domestic issues, including health care. Americans are inclined to think the government should be doing more, not less, to help solve them.

Only one in 10 Americans in the poll sees Mr. Trump as a typical Republican. The vast majority in both parties consider him a different kind of Republican, and they are more likely to say that's a good thing rather than a bad thing.

This picture raises a couple of pertinent questions. The first is whether it really was possible to move down a nonpartisan path -- or whether anti-Trump passions at the base of the Democratic Party would have made it impossible to do so. In other words, did Mr. Trump drive away Democrats, or did Democrats drive him further into the arms of fellow Republicans?

It's impossible to know for sure, of course, and certainly both forces were at work to some extent. The one thing that seems clear is that some of Mr. Trump's more divisive early actions, decisions and priorities made it easier for Democratic activists to create pressure on their representatives to take a never-cooperate position.

The more important question is whether it's too late to adopt a different approach. The answer: Of course not, after fewer than 100 days have passed. As noted, the president and his team already are pivoting toward a more centrist approach on some fronts.

Tax reform, infrastructure and national security all give Mr. Trump openings to become that builder of unconventional coalitions. The new Journal/NBC News poll indicates the most significant erosion in the president's standing since taking office has been among political independents. There's plenty of time to give them the kind of president they are looking for.

Write to Gerald F. Seib at jerry.seib@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 24, 2017 12:09 ET (16:09 GMT)