So, what the hell do the Democrats do now? The lead headline in Thursday’s New York Times had liberals climbing the walls: “Senate Democrats’ Surprising Strategy: Align With Trump.” Since no one can read past a headline anymore in this Twitter age, it provoked a fair amount of outraged reaction in my circles. No, went the cry! The Democrats have to be just as obstructionist as the Republicans were to Barack Obama.
If you read into the body of the Times article, you find Democratic sources telling the paper that there are four areas on which the Democrats might be able to work with President Trump: building infrastructure; punishing companies that move jobs overseas; ending the carried-interest loophole; and mandating paid maternity leave. These are four Democratic goals of long standing.
I’ll get to each of those, but first let’s look at the Democratic quandary more broadly. There will be three fronts on which they can try to fight Trump: cabinet appointments, controversies and scandals, and legislation.
On cabinet appointments, the Democrats won’t have much power to stop Trump from naming whomever he wants. But they can, and should, use the hearings to lay down markers—to ask tough and well-designed questions that help define these people, help frame who they are, help provide the context for future actions they will take.
Example: If Rudy Giuliani is really to be the secretary of state, get him on the record on the objectionable things Trump said during the campaign. On Russia and NATO and nuclear proliferation and Iran and blowing ISIS to bits and a whole host of other things, make Giuliani own Trump’s positions, so that if and when they blow up in his face, Giuliani is on record as defending these failures. Likewise, press the Energy nominee on coal and the EPA and everything else. Speaking of EPA, who in the world would Trump nominate for that? Whoever it is, make him or her own every extreme position Trump took. Use the hearings to plant the seed that this is the most radical administration we’ve seen.
Second, controversies and scandals. If this were the Republicans in the minority, I guarantee you they’d be raising all kinds of questions about Jared Kushner, the Rasputin-ish son-in-law; about the Trump kids’ role in this government and their security clearances; about the refusal to create a blind trust; Steve Bannon’s history and connections; a bunch of other things. The Democrats have to do all they can to keep these things in the news.
This should also be the work of what we call the progressive infrastructure. As I’ve pointed before, almost all the bad stuff you ever learned about the Clintons you learned because of one organization, Judicial Watch, which filed FOIA requests for nearly every piece of paper the Clintons and their people ever created. Where’s the Judicial Watch of the left? There isn’t one. Someone ought to start it. One thing you can always count on the press to love: secret documents that they didn’t have to do any work to uncover.
This brings us to legislation. Here I think the guiding principle ought to be: When Trump proposes something that is in line with the Democrats’ positions, fine, go along. But when he doesn’t, fight. And when he proposes something that’s really reactionary, fight five times harder.
I don’t think total obstruction à la the Republicans will work for the Democrats. First, it’s wrong. The Democrats have just spent eight years denouncing Republicans for being 100 percent obstructionist. They shouldn’t turn around and do the same thing.
Second, it’s harder for the party of government to act like that. When Obama proposed his infrastructure bank, you and I know that Republicans opposed it just because it was Obama proposing it. But your average person doesn’t know that, because the Republicans didn’t go around saying, “We’re against this simply because Obama is for it, and we don’t want him to have any legislative victories”; they went around saying, “More government spending is the last thing we need, we need to tighten our belts.” Average voters fell for that because it made sense to them that Republicans were against spending.
But if the Democrats do that right out of the chute on infrastructure, it’ll look weird to your average voter. What, these are the people who like to spend money, and now suddenly they don’t want to spend money just because it’s Trump? Which of course the Republicans will say times a thousand. No one said life is fair.
So there will be some matters on which they’ll have to play ball with Trump. You have to keep in mind here the Senate Democrats who’ll be facing reelection in 2018. The party will have 10 incumbent senators seeking reelection in what we must now call red states, including Wisconsin, and Florida. In most of those states—Missouri, Montana, West Virginia, Indiana—Trump is probably going to be pretty popular, barring a big recession or war.
Total obstruction, a Senate Democratic aide argued to me Thursday, could really hurt those Democrats. Imagine this scenario: The Democrats lose most of those seats and are down to 40 Senate votes. Then the Republicans can do absolutely anything—repeal Dodd-Frank, start repealing old New Deal stuff, you name it.
That may be. On the other side of all this, though, is the Democratic base. They’re going to want to see the Democrats fight. And they will, on most things—certainly on Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, and other big items. And even on infrastructure, it’ll be about the details. Brad Plumer of Vox has a thorough take-out on why Trump’s infrastructure proposal is crap (in sum, because as structured it wouldn’t finance projects that couldn’t pay investors back quickly, so it would mostly finance new projects and do little to nothing to repair aging roads, bridges, rail lines, water lines, and such). If that’s the proposal, Democrats should probably oppose it, too, and try their best to explain to voters why.
If, however, Trump actually wants to crack down on off-shoring with no (or acceptably few) strings attached, the Democrats shouldn’t oppose it. There’ll be plenty to oppose, and as noted above, other ways to play offense. But congressional Democrats are never going to be as unified in opposition as congressional Republicans, because more of them are from swing districts or states. And yes, that can change too, but there’s only one way—more blue voters need to vote.