On Tuesday, Democrats voted lockstep against Betsy DeVoss for secretary of education. It was a sign that the party had moved toward a strategy of obstruction. It is an ironic tip of the cap to Donald Trump and the Tea Party. And it might be a big mistake.
Nothing succeeds like success. Whenever someone does something that works, the natural instinct is to replicate it. This happens in politics, business, and sports. Everybody plays Moneyball now.
Democrats have watched what the Tea Party and Donald Trump, respectively, pulled off, and now they want to seek revenge by mimicking the very tactics used by their adversaries. The problem is that (1) not everyone is positioned to do the same things, and (2) times and situations change. Sometimes fighting the last war works; other times, it doesn’t.
Faced with a surprising loss, our carnal instinct is for crude revenge, a tit-for tat. But revenge is a dish best served cold. Many columns describe Democrats as becoming the party of “no.” To my knowledge, none of these columns were written by someone on the center-right, and that makes a certain amount of sense. It would be easy to suggest that what I’m about to say is concern trolling. But what follows is sincere advice.
Before attempting to replicate what conservatives did, it’s worth asking if it is replicable. There are reasons to believe the techniques and strategies are not transferable.
First, the Tea Party was, as I have lamented, an anti-intellectual movement. Conversely, the Democratic base is full of people who listen to NPR. Whipping up the same kind of fervor that shunts the nuances of governing is unlikely to unify the left. A corollary to this is that a large portion of people on the left actually like government. So how do you get the left to unify around a shutdown tactic?
Second, politics is about choices, and copying Trump’s tactics would deprive Democrats of a favorable contrast. Keep in mind, the fundamental choice may not always be left vs. right. Donald Trump has tried to make the choice about insiders vs. outsiders, and (to a certain extent) this strategy has worked. However, that was the last war—a war he defined. Maybe the next election will focus on chaos vs. normalcy or incompetence vs. competence.
If that happens, Democrats would be foolish to abandon this unique selling proposition. Politics is about addition, and there could be demand for a rational and thoughtful party in 2020. Democrats would essentially abandon this emerging coalition by seeking to ape Trump.
It’s hard to see how a race to the bottom—that serves to further weaken faith in institutions and government—helps the brand of big government. Instead, Democrats need to offer an alternative vision of how sensible, thoughtful, nuanced governance is the preferred alternative to Trumpism.
Even if liberals were to replicate everything that happened during the last eight years as Republicans resisted President Obama, there’s no guarantee that it would end with a victory for their team. After all, Trump did lose the popular vote. It took a confluence of numerous external events for Trump to win. Adopting a radical strategy of reflexive resistance—based on the assumption that liberals will inexorably win the presidency in 2024—seems like an unwise gamble.
But forget about winning back the presidency, there is no guarantee Democrats will even be able to replicate what Republicans did in 2010 and 2014. To be sure, Democrats won the 2006 midterms by essentially running as the party of “no” against a flailing George W. Bush administration. However, that was year six of his presidency, and the wheels had come off. What is more, while it is not unusual for a president’s party to lose seats in midterms, Democrats will be playing defense in 2018, defending several incumbent Senate seats in states where Trump won.
While whipping up the base is likely to increase midterm turnout, midterms typically skew much older and whiter than do presidential elections. This is all a long way of saying that while it’s possible Democrats could have good midterms, it’s a steeper climb.
It’s one thing for Democrats to unite in opposition to Trump’s cabinet picks; that’s easy. What happens when the budget comes this spring? What if it defunds Planned Parenthood? Do Democrats force a government shutdown over that, or do they merely vote against it? There is extensive range between these two strategic decisions. The base will surely be clamoring for a shutdown, but—again—this is an “off brand” move for the Party of Government that might want to come to the rescue if Trump’s chaos finally backfires. Warren Harding’s “return to normalcy” offers us a model for winning after a period of turmoil.
Now, I have no illusions that liberals will heed my warnings any more than conservatives did. Just as Republicans were effectively leaderless for nearly a decade (between George W. Bush and Donald Trump), Democrats now find themselves without a de facto (or de jure) leader. Therefore, the initial instinct is to fight. The heart wants what the heart wants.
The first and most basic form of resistance is to take to the streets (just as the Tea Party did). Marches can be good for morale, but (with a few obvious exceptions) they are overrated in terms of change. The big Women’s March was probably more about resolving “intersectional” racial tensions within the left (emphasizing its nonwhite leadership) than it was about winning the future.
Democrats have the chance to emerge as a serious and competent opposition party. However, scorched-earth tactics are not going to accomplish that goal. An economic populism that brings together working-class whites and African-Americans and Hispanics is within their reach―but the party’s internal interest groups and actors each have a perverse incentive to stoke anger. Republicans spent a decade dealing with the “tragedy of the commons” problem. Now, it is the Democrats who are up at bat.