President Donald Trump is often criticized for being transactional rather than relational in his approach to governing. This frustrates Republicans and Democrats. The disruptive result is a growing trend where politicians are willing to approach policy on a case-by-case basis rather than succumbing to the sweeping chasm of political purity tests. A somewhat ironic, but critically important, legacy from the Trump administration could be a greater willingness to pursue coalition governing. That would be good for the country.
One need look no further than the recent retreat sponsored by the Koch brothers. The Kochs are known as libertarian-leaning, conservative-money moguls who have poured millions of dollars into conservative candidates and causes. The 650 well-heeled donors in attendance, who will each donate $100,000 this year to Koch political and policy enterprises, were greeted with a large banner featuring the face of liberal activist and CNN commentator Van Jones. This wasn’t an alternate universe or early April Fools' Day joke — this was coalition governing.
The Koch brothers network joined former Obama administration ally Jones, liberal Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and conservative Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, to drive a criminal justice reform bill that the president eagerly signed in December. Jones called out liberal groups that had sought to kill the bill simply because they didn’t want Trump to have a win. Others called out conservative groups that likewise worked against the bill because it would be beneficial to “beatable Democrats” in the next election cycle.
The victory for criminal justice reform was also a victory over the kind of contempt-filled swamp thinking that has paralyzed Washington for too long. Rather than seeing this coalition as an aberration in a fractured nation, many hope this becomes the norm.
Finding allies and building such coalition alliances will be the test for lawmakers and leaders across the political spectrum and around the world in the years ahead.
Interestingly, past Koch retreats have served as a gathering place for Republican members of Congress to connect and make their individual cases to donors and potential supporters. This year only Lee and Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., were invited to address the group.
Lee not only discussed his successes with Democrats on criminal justice and regulatory reform, he also demonstrated how he could be against the president on one issue one day and with him on another the next. This was the case when Lee and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., rebuked the administration's Yemen policy by passing a resolution to end military funding for Saudi Arabia. Just days later, Lee was in the Oval Office while the president signed a criminal justice bill.
At the retreat, a Washington Post reporter highlighted the Charles Koch Foundation’s Courageous Collaborations initiative, which is designed to "support research on overcoming intolerance." StoryCorps, one group receiving a grant from the foundation, stages respectful conversations between those with different political views. Such movements are the basis for meaningful collaboration.16 comments on this story
The head of StoryCorps, Dave Isay, said, “Democracy cannot survive in a swamp of mutual contempt.” One need not abandon principle or policy to engage in meaningful, elevated dialogue. Recognizing and valuing the differences leads to productive conversations and potential coalitions.
Despite a climate of divisive political rhetoric and the incessant demonization of political opponents, there is a bright spot on the horizon. Building coalitions based on areas of agreement rather than focusing on areas of contention could transform the way Washington works. It would get Congress back to doing the policy work of the people instead of the political work of the parties.