MANCHESTER, N.H. — The bipartisan moment has come, and gone, in Washington.
Forget about the budget agreement President Donald J. Trump sculpted with Democratic leaders in early September. Put aside the accord the president and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi formed over a White House dinner a few days later. There are no more signs that bipartisanship has broken out in Washington than there are indications Kim Jong Un is abandoning his nuclear missile plans.
Just because Trump is a president who won the Republican presidential nomination does not make him a Republican president; John Tyler was elected to the vice presidency in 1840 on the Whig ticket, but when he ascended to the White House after the death of William Henry Harrison, he did not comport himself as a Whig president.
At his core, Trump is more rebel than Republican, more provocateur than politician.
And while a political novice occupies the White House, the professionals up on Capitol Hill remain mystified by his instincts and impulses, some of which — for the briefest breath in time — seemed to indicate a presidential willingness to abandon House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to embrace their Democratic counterparts.
But overlooked amid the shock emerging from the agreement with his Democratic rivals — political figures he had demeaned, derided and dismissed — was the fact that Trump may have talked about bipartisanship but, because he was not negotiating with both parties, was not practicing it.
Indeed, Trump, whose Republicans hold a 240-194 majority in the House and a 52-48 advantage in the Senate, was not negotiating with Republicans at all. He was negotiating with one party, and, as former Reagan White House Chief of Staff Kenneth Duberstein said in a telephone conversation the other afternoon, "You have to get both sides together to have bipartisanship, and talking with one side doesn't do it."
The notion of bipartisanship is more than a philosophical concept in American politics. Just last week, as Republicans pressed, and failed, for the third time to overturn Obamacare, an early bellwether of the fate of the effort came with the refusal of Sen. John McCain to side with the Republican repeaters. McCain, the GOP presidential nominee eight years before Trump captured the prize, said that legislation to alter one-seventh of the American economy "requires a bipartisan approach."
McCain's relationships across the partisan aisle have been productive over the years. In 1993, the Arizona Republican and Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry, both veterans of the Vietnam conflict, embarked on a joint mission to the Hanoi prison where McCain was held for six years, producing a cease-fire in the war of recriminations growing out of that country. With Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, he won a landmark campaign finance overhaul 15 years ago. So it was with a plea for bipartisanship that McCain doomed the Obamacare repeal effort:
"We should not be content to pass health care legislation on a party-line basis, as Democrats did when they rammed Obamacare through Congress in 2009. If we do so, our success could be as short-lived as theirs when the political winds shift, as they regularly do."
Trump may be less an operative and more an opportunist — not always a pejorative term, as Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, both accomplished schemers and rule-breakers, demonstrated. The president may have moved toward the Democrats merely because, as George Washington University political scientist Sarah A. Binder put it, "the Democrats had some leverage: votes the president needed."
That confederation of convenience was as artificial as the World War II partnership between the Western allies and the Soviet Union — an arrangement that Winston Churchill called a Grand Alliance, but that Adolf Hitler characterized as an "unnatural coalition" and that the British historian Max Hastings termed a "great charade." At least the World War II alliance lasted four years and produced a victory that changed, and saved, the world.
But Trump's sometimes-partnership with the Republicans makes no sense either. He is more alienated than ever from McConnell, and he and Ryan, who have sparred repeatedly since Trump emerged as a credible presidential candidate, seem to have contempt for each other. Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Flake, McCain's fellow Arizona Republican, has published a book excoriating Trump. And here in New Hampshire, likely Republican voters surveyed in an August poll indicated that a majority favored Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, who finished a distant second to Trump, for president in 2020.
"A lot depends on what happens in the 2018 midterm elections," says former state Attorney General Thomas D. Rath, an important New Hampshire campaign strategist vigorously recruited by presidential candidates for the first primary of the political season.
At least the Whigs of 1840, understanding their differences, created no party platform.
Trump's best chance to repair his alliance with Republicans is a massive overhaul of the tax code, an effort that almost certainly will return the Democratic leadership into strong opposition and will prompt Pelosi and Schumer to characterize the Republicans as tools of the wealthy and of business interests.
All this underscores the frustration that Trump has fostered in Washington -- and that he surely feels about Washington.
"Political parties are a marvelous mechanism, which, on the national scale, ensures that not a single mind can attend to the effort of perceiving, in public affairs, what is good, what is just, what is true," the French philosopher and political activist Simone Weil wrote in a landmark book, "On the Abolition of All Political Parties," published in Paris in 1957. "As a result — except for a very small number of fortuitous coincidences — nothing is decided, nothing is executed, but measures that run contrary to the public interest, to justice and to truth. If one were to entrust the organization of public life to the devil, he could not invent a more clever device."
Perhaps Weil — an anarchist and onetime Marxist who harbored Leon Trotsky in a Paris apartment — is the political lodestar for Trump, who until now has been identified with no known political philosophy, nor political party. It is hard to guess which of the two would be more bewildered, or horrified.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.