Democrats launch scorched-earth strategy against Trump
What began as a high-minded discussion about how to position the Democratic Party against President Donald Trump appears to be nearing its conclusion. The bulk of the party has settled on a scorched-earth, not-now-not-ever model of opposition.
In legislative proposals, campaign promises, donor pitches and even in some Senate hearings, Democrats have opted for a hard-line, give-no-quarter posture, a reflection of a seething party base that will have it no other way.
According to interviews with roughly two dozen party leaders and elected officeholders, the internal debate over whether to take the conciliatory path — to pursue a high-road approach as a contrast to Trump’s deeply polarizing and norm-violating style — is largely settled, cemented in place by a transition and first week in office that has confirmed the left’s worst fears about Trump’s temperament.
“They were entitled to a grace period, but it was midnight the night of the inauguration to 8 o'clock the next morning, when the administration sent out people to lie about numerous significant things. And the damage to the credibility of the presidency has already been profound,” said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. “They were entitled to a grace period and they blew it. It’s been worse than I could have imagined, the first few days."
That conclusion comes after two months of intraparty debates about how to outwardly treat the Trump White House, a process which played out not only in public but also in private meetings and conference calls between leading party operatives, elected officials and message crafters.
“I predict the coming divide in the Democratic Party won’t be ideological so much as it will be between those who resist and oppose and those who accommodate and appease,” strategist David Brock told roughly 120 donors gathered in Florida over the weekend to plot a path forward.
That mind-set has permeated every outpost of the party from governors' mansions to Congress. Whether it’s in statehouses or the offices of state attorneys general, the Democratic National Committee or the constellation of outside left-leaning political groups, Trump’s benefit of the doubt is gone.
At a forum this week for candidates running to be the next DNC chair, the very idea that the party should try to work with the new president was dismissed as absurd.
“That’s a question that’s absolutely ridiculous,” said New Hampshire party Chairman Raymond Buckley, when asked whether the Democratic Party should try to work with Trump where it can find opportunities.
Television commentator Jehmu Greene offered: “If you saw the millions of people who marched in the streets this weekend and participated in it, they are looking to the Democratic Party. We have an opportunity as a party to be that place of resistance. So we have to form a solid resistance as a party. And no, it is not about working with Donald Trump.” .
Some party leaders are wary of the implications of teeth-baring, no-holds-barred opposition. They worry about the difficult position in which it puts vulnerable Democratic senators — 10 of them will be up for reelection in 2018 in states that Trump carried.
There are also concerns about the dangers of appearing overly obstructionist, and the possible blowback it could create for party officeholders up and down the ballot in 2018. An explicitly aggressive approach also stands to shape the 2020 presidential field, incentivizing potential candidates to compete in expressing their level of anti-Trump vitriol.
“We need to remember that one of the reasons young voters, especially, were uninspired is you can’t have a message of, “I’m not him,’” cautioned DNC vice chairman R.T. Rybak, the former Minneapolis mayor.
“Focusing too much on what he says — every absurdity, every misrepresentation of fact, every lie that comes out of his mouth or his tweets — makes no sense to me,” said former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a candidate for California governor. "The best way to fight Trump is to chart what represents the values, the priorities that we’re for. I don’t think it makes sense to spend all of our time responding to every tweet, I think that will just reinforce a notion that many people have in our country that we put party before country."
Brock’s Florida conference outlined some of the philosophical fault lines. In one closed-door session, Chicago mayor and former Barack Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel advocated a measured approach to Trump opposition, one in which Democrats choose only specific fights with a tight game plan. Sitting opposite Emanuel, former Joe Biden chief of staff Ron Klain shared his rules for a “100 Day Fight Club” — a battle royal he advocated to mark Trump’s opening stretch, according to people in the room.
Other sessions detailed a massive pushback operation that featured expansive litigation plans and opposition research efforts.
“Three days ago, Donald Trump went from being a private citizen who tweets and criticizes to the establishment,” said Ted Lieu, a Los Angeles-area congressman who has been vocally anti-Trump, to the point of introducing legislation to stop the new president from launching a nuclear first strike without passing it by Congress. “He and the Republicans have unified control, and they own it. It is Trump’s foreign policy, Trump’s economy, Trump’s health care plan. So he has to govern, and in less than two years voters will go to the polls, and he has to own it.”
Added Zac Petkanas, director of the DNC’s anti-Trump war room: “We are very wary that this administration is trying to flood the zone with a whole lot of stuff that is very objectionable all at once, and make it very difficult by creating a cacophony of terribleness so that not one thing gets through. It’s a tactic that they used on the campaign, and they were fairly successful at doing so, so in a lot of ways we look at our jobs as focusing in on what we think are the most objectionable things." The DNC war room is currently taking on Trump's Cabinet nominees, ties to Russia and potential conflicts of interest.
Even so, strident anti-Trump Democrats worry that deal-makers like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) will try to find agreements with the new president — concerns that have been heightened by the Cabinet confirmation process, in which Schumer has prioritized eight nominees rather than trying to gum up all the picks at once.
In their view, a true opposition party in the Senate should grind all Republican movement to a halt. But that creates a problem for the senators leading the charge, who insist choosing their battles is the most effective way to kneecap Trump’s agenda.
“Opposing every nominee was not seriously on the table; it never has been. That’s not a test of whether or not you’re resistant," said Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz, noting that the party simply doesn’t have the votes to stop many of them.
Democratic lawmakers have still found ways to embarrass Trump, by pushing to get Trump’s nominees to disagree with the president and introducing legislation aimed at disempowering him or forcing him to disclose personal information like tax returns. And by letting some of Trump’s less objectionable picks through without a fight, like Housing and Urban Development Secretary nominee Ben Carson, senators believe they can inoculate themselves from the criticism of obstructionism often leveled at McConnell during Obama’s presidency.
“We’ve spoken from our collective gut, and that has rung true with a lot of our supporters because they see us finding our spine, and likewise we see millions of Americans spontaneously marching and we find courage and strength,” said Schatz, speaking of Senate Democrats’ strategy to consider Trump’s nominees. "So what I like about what’s happening out there across the country and within the Senate is it’s not centrally planned, it’s not run by a communications shop. This is the 48 of us doing our job because we understand that for a lot of people who are terrified by what’s happening in the country, for them we’re the tip of the spear."
While some building unions — a small element of the traditional Democratic coalition — have shown particular willingness to collaborate with Trump due to his talk about infrastructure investment, for the most part there are few cracks in the Democratic facade.
“I haven’t slept a good night since Nov. 8, but the things that don’t keep me up at night are: ‘Will Trump offer up things that Democrats will be tempted to support?’” said Klain, a top adviser to Hillary Clinton.
“Something we see is the question, ‘Is Donald Trump going to propose reasonable policies that people can get behind?’ That doesn’t feel like a problem we’re going to have,” said Jessica Mackler, president of American Bridge, Democrats’ main opposition research group. “So far we’ve seen no evidence that this is a choice we’re going to have to make."
Even governors, the realistic executives who understand the challenges of governance and management, are lining up to insist they won't fall for Trump's enticements in the form of infrastructure investments.
“I’ve never been a proponent of cutting off your nose to spite your face. There are going to be some things we can agree on,” said Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy. “I’m not precluding the possibility, but we’re not going to agree to discriminate, we’re not going to agree to make poor people poorer, we’re not going to agree to turn our back on our international obligations."
Added Inslee: “Early in our resistance to his potential damage to our states, we’re going to be vocal. In the middle, we’re going to be persistent, and at the end, we’re going to be resistant. If the federal government wants to send several billion dollars to my office to help infrastructure, you can’t say no,” added Inslee. “But we will say no very loudly, very vocally, very consistently to the idea that’s going to be some leverage for not protecting people based on race or ethnicity."
By delivering a massive slight to the president on the first day of the Trump era — roughly a third of the House Democratic Caucus refused to attend his inauguration — Democrats sent a strong signal about their intentions both to the White House and to the American public.
Although few in the party took issue with the inaugural strategy, leading party strategists and officials caution that an oppose-at-all costs strategy may not leave enough room for the flexibility Democrats may need at some point.
After all, they're dealing with a singularly mercurial president.
“We’ve never seen anything like him. This isn’t ideological. He’s taken this to places we’ve never been. He’s said things we’ve never heard from a commander in chief,” said Villaraigosa. “So all I can tell you is any game plan you have for Donald Trump should have a fair amount of audibles."