So Chuck Schumer started saying over the weekend that he would oppose Donald Trump’s infrastructure bill, assuming it looks roughly the same as Trump’s campaign proposal. Good. It’s a sham. Or, as Ron Klain called it in an absolute must-read Washington Post column over the weekend, a “trap.” It’s a tax break plan for developers that wouldn’t create that many jobs or finance existing, crumbling infrastructure, and it would add to the deficit.
So it’s a good sign, what Schumer said, as was his interview with E.J. Dionne Monday, in which he said that when Trump “goes divisive,” the Democrats will “oppose him with everything we have.” Unfortunately, they don’t have much—no committee chairs, no subpoena power, no oversight power, no control of the legislative calendar. And there’s no prospect of getting any of those things in 2018, either.
To make matters worse, as I noted last week, there are four Democratic senators from deep-red states who are up for reelection in 2018. The pressure on those four—Claire McCaskill, Joe Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp, Jon Tester—to support Trump initiatives will be enormous. Another five represent states that Trump won, albeit more narrowly; they too will face such pressures, so Schumer is going to have a tough time holding that caucus together.
So what do the Democrats have? Mainly right now, what they have are a lot of pissed off and freaked out people who want to do something. And Schumer and Nancy Pelosi and the other leaders of the official, Washington Democratic Party have to energize and engage these people in ways they’ve always been reluctant to do in the past. Which means they have to behave very differently from the way they’ve behaved as an opposition party in the past.
Some background. In recent history, the Democrats were most notably in the oppositional spotlight twice: in the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was president, and then in 2001-2002 when it was George W. Bush. Both times, the Democrats were overly accommodating. The 1980s are ancient history now in terms of polarization, but just for the record, I’ll note for you that 63 Democratic House members and 30 senators backed Ronald Reagan’s first budget. That represented nearly a third of all Democrats then in Congress.
When Dubya became president, things were more polarized, but even so, three Democratic senators and 13 House members backed Bush’s first tax cut. Those numbers are small, but they’re a lot more than the zero votes Republicans routinely gave Barack Obama (he did get three GOP senators on the stimulus package, but no House members). And many more Democrats backed the No Child Left Behind act, another early Bush signature bill.
The Democrats who cast these yea votes did so in part for their own local reasons, but there has also long been a fear on the Democratic side of opposing these Republican presidents’ big initiatives because the Democrats feared they’d work, and then they (the Democrats) would be seen as “anti-growth.” The same logic was at work on the Iraq War vote for many of them, especially the ones with an eye on the White House—if the war was a success and they voted against it, they’d look “weak.”
They were wrong every time. Voting for Republican economic schemes just ended up muddying their own message and lending bipartisan cover to a massive wealth transfer to those at the top. And voting for Bush’s war, well…
In casting these votes, Democrats went against the passion of their grassroots. This has been a key difference between the two parties for a good 20 years now: The Republicans relentlessly pander to their base, while the Democrats keep theirs at arm’s length (think of the way Pelosi immediately slammed the door shut on impeachment talk when she became Speaker in 2007).
That has to be different now. They shouldn’t pander to the base as abjectly as the Republicans do, because that’s what got us to Trump. But they do need to listen more and be less afraid of Republican attacks.
The Democratic Party, as an actually existing thing, has four main parts to it: one, the elected officials; two, the money people; three, the people (a few thousand) who work in the trenches for the various progressive causes; four, the energized base (as opposed to people who just vote once every four years). The four parts don’t really talk to each other. That must change.
Elected officials have to see that they need to take the idea of energizing the base seriously. Again, here, Schumer made a positive and, to me, surprising move when he came out so quickly for Keith Ellison as the new DNC chair. Ellison is well to Schumer’s left, but Senate sources tell me that Schumer recognized that the official party, the one’s and the two’s, have to do a better job of making the four’s feel they’re being heard.
That leaves the three’s, and this too is an absolutely crucial point. These organizations on the broad left are constantly underfunded—everybody scrounging to the same few foundations, which take months to decide things and then fund something for three years and withdraw instead of the 10 years that people need to make their organizations have impact.
Let me give you one telling example. As I wrote more than once during the campaign, Judicial Watch did a lot, in this campaign and over many years, to darken Hillary Clinton’s image in the minds of average Americans. They did this through FOIA request after FOIA request, getting their teams of lawyers to comb through every document, and turning up stuff that could be peddled as dirt and that informed the way the mainstream media wrote about Clinton—the assumptions made, the adjectives used, and so on. Judicial Watch has a $30 million annual budget.
Now: Don’t you think liberalism could use a Judicial Watch of its own to file FOIA after FOIA after FOIA on the Trump administration? It sure could. The group would have a field day with this guy. The revelations that would come out would make for a constant media barrage hitting Trump on ethics. He’d be on the defensive all the time.
Well—there is no such group. No one has funded it. Actually, there is one group in Washington that may be capable of doing this work, the Committee for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). It’s a good outfit. But CREW’s budget is just $2 million.
You hear a lot about George Soros and rich Hollywood liberals, and you probably just assume that liberals spend more money on this kind of activity than conservatives. Not so. There are far more rich conservatives than liberals for the obvious reason that having pots of money tends to make people conservative—and tends to make them want to invest in the politicians who’ll protect their money.
And so it’s the right that spends more. Rob Stein, the founder of the Democracy Alliance, the group of wealthy liberal donors that tries to coordinate investment in a progressive infrastructure, has studied this question for years. He told me: “The right has been building its infrastructure for more than 40 years. Whereas 10 years ago the right’s independent political apparatus was outspending progressives in electorally relevant state-based political mobilization by over two to one, in this cycle that margin appears to have been in excess of four to one.”
Lots of work to do. The Democrats have the votes in the Senate to block most things from passing, unless Mitch McConnell gets rid of the filibuster, which we’ll see about soon enough. But they’re not going to stop what’s coming with forty-odd votes. That will take millions—of dollars, and people. They’re out there. They need to be directed and led, without fear of Trump or Fox or whatever. If those days aren’t over, the legacy of the Democratic Party may soon be.