Commentary: What is Trump's way forward?

President Trump announces the Air Traffic Control Reform Initiative in the East Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Mon., June 5, 2017.

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As we try to make sense of the spectacularly unusual presidency of Donald Trump, there's an impulse to look to history.

There is the example of Bill Clinton, who struggled mightily at the beginning of his tenure. Quickly engulfed in scandal, beset by a malfunctioning White House light on executive branch experience, Clinton had difficulty staffing his administration, was initially unpopular, and wound up stumbling into the Republican Revolution of 1994.

Ultimately, though, he righted the ship, moved to the center, and remained popular for the rest of his two terms in office. For those sympathetic to Trump, the Clinton parallel offers both comfort and something of a road map to a second term.

Or perhaps Trump is more like Jimmy Carter, an outsider ignorant of the way Washington works whose name is now simultaneous with an unsuccessful presidency. 

Like Trump, Carter came into office with his party controlling both chambers of Congress. But the Democratic Party in Carter's time, like the GOP under Trump, was rife with internal divisions and uncertain in its beliefs. Challenged from the left by Ted Kennedy in his party's bitter 1980 primary, Carter limped to defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan, which ushered a resurgent right into power and reshaped modern American history.

Both these comparisons are worth thinking about as we consider Trump. Ben Domenech, a fan of the Clinton model in mapping out how Trump could survive, recently argued that what the 45th president needs now is a pivot reminiscent of the one the 42nd pulled off more than 20 years ago.

"So what would that pivot look like?" Domenech writes. "It begins with doing the same thing that he did all the time during the presidential campaign: running against Washington and refusing to even pretend to be a traditional Republican."

There's a lot to recommend this analysis, both as a broad statement of policy and in the tactical specifics. Trump's attempts to act like a regular Republican of the Paul Ryan school have been little less than disastrous. The health care bill that emerged from the House is a non-starter from a policy standpoint, and would do little to alleviate the problems caused by Obamacare. The bold infrastructure plan we were promised looks more and more like a half-baked public relations scheme. Other initiatives, such as privatizing air traffic controllers, look like issues in search of a constituency.

Trump's approval ratings hover somewhere in the mid thirties, although Wall Street is quite happy with his performance, what with his embrace of regulatory reform and a (still theoretical) tax cut for top earners. But Trump wasn't elected to please Wall Street and the Gary Cohns of the world. He was supposed to be a populist, yet the only populism we've seen so far comes in the form of the flighty symbolism of travel bans and exiting treaties.

So why not a firmer populist approach, one that produces real results for the Middle Americans who form Trump's base? Well, there are problems with this strategy, too.

The first is that populist economics, and the state intervention it requires, would need bipartisan support. Domenech theorizes that, by giving left-wing Democrats like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren more concessions than any normal Republican president would, Trump could refashion the health-care bill into something more workable and more likely to be passed.

Since Trump has few options at this point when it comes to health care, it might be wise for the White House to heed this advice. But broadly speaking, bipartisanship in the Trump era is a risky proposition. 

Obviously Trump is hated by the liberal grassroots, and any Democrat mulling a 2020 run, which is at this point might be a majority of Democratic lawmakers in Washington, would need a lot of courage to embrace any proposal arising from this administration, regardless of how moderate or populist it seems. Democratic voters want obstructionism on a massive scale, so for your average progressive politician, there's very little incentive to work at all with Trump.  

The second thing to consider is how much Trump relies on his right flank right now. 

The GOP leadership in Congress doesn't like him and doesn't really want to defend him. The calculus is different, however, from more hardcore conservatives who represent districts that went overwhelmingly for Trump. Their voters like Trump, therefore they like Trump, and feel obliged to defend him and help him.

At the same time, this right flank would be opposed to any ideological adventurism. They don't want tariffs and New Deal-esque work programs and all the other things Steve Bannon was fantasizing about in the halcyon days after the election. And, as a group, Trump probably can't afford to lose them – look at the trouble they already caused in the health care fight. He needs to keep the right in his corner, particularly should the Russia matter explode and impeachment starts looking like a real possibility

It would seem, then, that the most plausible way forward for Trump, given both the political realities of the moment and his own personal idiosyncrasies, is to just keep doing what he's been doing. Call it the Jake LaMotta strategy – take the punishment, remain standing, attack viciously at every opportunity, and exhaust your opponents. Trump's fans want him to fight with Washington, and regardless of whether his wins or loses, they'll cheer if he keeps taking and delivering blows. You never got me down, Schumer! 

Would this be sustainable? It's hard to think it would be, at least in the long run. But it's also extraordinarily difficult to think of plausible alternatives. At this point, Trump's fortunes may entirely rely on Democratic incompetence rather than some kind of pivot. That's not a great place to be, but given the recent track record of America's center-left party, it just might be enough to keep him in office. 

  • Will Rahn

    Will Rahn is a political correspondent and managing director, politics, for CBS News Digital.