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4 reasons Democrats shouldn't totally freak out about President Trump

President-elect Donald Trump delivers remarks at the Chairman's Global Dinner, at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.  (Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)
President-elect Donald Trump delivers remarks at the Chairman's Global Dinner, at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium on Tuesday in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)
Published Jan. 19, 2017

Inaugurations should offer a dose of hope and optimism, even for voters whose candidate lost. This week, though, millions of Americans are worried about the president-elect.

The angst is heightened by the political climate, the demeanor of the man poised to move into the White House and the shock that he won after so many experts and pundits doubted he could.

Donald Trump will enter office with the lowest approval rating of any president-elect. But even those Democrats and liberals sporting "Not my president" buttons to protest the man about to be their president can find some reason for hope. The beauty of a politician so unpredictable and so comfortable taking multiple sides of different issues is that people of all political stripes can find rays of hope.

There is zero evidence that Trump's combativeness will subside when he is sworn into office at noon Friday, but the former Democrat from New York has sent ample signals that he will govern much more moderately than his Cabinet might suggest or than a President Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz or Mike Pence would.

Here are four areas where progressives could be pleasantly surprised by President Trump.

1. Social issues. Mister "Two Corinthians" can pander with the best of them, but he is no Bible-thumping ideologue on social issues.

When the Today show's Matt Lauer asked candidate Trump in April about North Carolina restricting transgender bathroom use, the front-runner for the nomination didn't hesitate to call it a mistake.

"There have been very few complaints the way it is. People go. They use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate. There has been so little trouble," said Trump, who said he would let Caitlyn Jenner use whatever bathroom at Trump Tower she wanted.

Yes, three months later he waffled on the law, telling a North Carolina newspaper, "Generally speaking, I'm with the state on things like this." But clearly he has little appetite for fighting a culture war over gay rights.

Likewise, Trump told 60 Minutes in November that he is "fine" with same-sex marriage. He even offered praise for Planned Parenthood during a Republican primary debate: "Millions and millions of women — cervical cancer, breast cancer — are helped by Planned Parenthood."

He has been crystal clear about his intention to name staunch conservatives to the U.S. Supreme Court, and with as many as four justices to name in his first term, he could alter the court for generations. But that was the case for any Republican candidate, and virtually all of them could have been counted on to be more socially conservative than the thrice-married president-elect.

2. Health care reform. Obamacare is in serious trouble, no question. But what Trump is vaguely describing for a replacement sounds a lot like what Democrats have been striving for — for decades.

"We're going to have insurance for everybody," he vowed in a weekend Washington Post interview that must have Republican leaders scratching their heads.

Republicans have never aspired to provide universal health coverage, a longstanding Democratic goal. Whether Trump has a serious health care plan he is preparing to unveil is as doubtful as whether Republican congressional leaders will endorse that goal. But the president-elect has made a big fat promise that they can't escape.

In the heat of the primary, Trump often sounded like the token bleeding heart on a stage of Republicans mainly focused on getting government out of health care. At one point, Cruz accused Trump of supporting socialized medicine and Trump accused Cruz of being heartless.

"We're going to take care of people that are dying on the street because there will be a group of people that are not going to be able to even think in terms of private or anything else, and we're going to take care of those people," Trump said in a February debate in New Hampshire. "And I think everybody on this stage would have to agree, you're not going to let people die, sitting in the middle of a street in any city in this country."

In 1999, Trump publicly supported America adopting a single-payer health system. He no longer does, but it's an indication of where his gut instincts lean.

3. Spending. Republicans in Washington have spent at least eight years thundering against the soaring national debt and government spending. Not Trump.

He made clear on the campaign trail that he has no interest in reining in costs for Medicare or Medicaid, which is central to House Speaker Paul Ryan's plan to balance the budget over the next 10 years.

Rather than lament the national debt, Trump sounds eager to enact big tax cuts and big spending projects. He wants to spend billions building that beautiful border wall, as well as ramp up military spending and pump hundreds of billions of dollars into upgrading roads and bridges across the country.

It's telling that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is much more enthusiastic about Trump's infrastructure spending ideas than Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is.

4. Offshore drilling. Officially, Trump is in line with the "Drill, baby, drill" orthodoxy of the GOP establishment. Officially, he supports the federal government allowing expanded offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

But I can't help thinking about his gut instincts again, recalling a conversation I had with him about offshore drilling after a campaign rally in Tampa early last year. I asked him whether he supports offshore drilling. It was immediately clear he didn't know much about the issue.

The real estate mogul, whose southern White House rests a few hundred yards from the Atlantic Ocean in Palm Beach, asked several questions, and then sounded like he thought the idea of more drilling off Florida's coast is moronic.

"They've already got plenty in the gulf. … It would be a little bit of a shame (to expand drilling closer to Florida) because there's so much fracking, and there's so much oil that we have now that we never thought possible," Trump said.

By now, we've learned that what Trump says he believes one day is not necessarily what he believes the next day.

But in the spirit of unity that ideally surrounds any inauguration, I offer these threads of hope to Democrats depressed about this week's transfer of power.

Trump's primary ideology is based on people's approval of him, not sharp partisanship. There is a chance, however slight, that after the 44th president failed to live up to his post-partisan promise, the blustery 45th president might.

Contact Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow @AdamSmithTimes.