Democrats once dreamed of Inauguration Day. Now they're soul-searching instead

January 20, 2017
In The News

Miami is not where Jon Cowan expected to be on Inauguration Day.

He was certain he would be holding a champagne glass and toasting the nation’s first female president alongside the inaugural parade route at the Washington pub Elephant & Castle. “It was this unbelievable space where we were going to have this large gathering of Democrats,” said Cowan, who runs the left-of-center think tank Third Way.

A clause in the rental contract, which allowed the group to bail if Clinton lost, had seemed almost silly. “We thought there was no chance it would be triggered,” Cowan said.

But instead, he found himself taking a lead in the counter-programming. He planned to spend Friday offering straight talk to an elite gathering of Democratic donors and strategists assembled at a South Florida resort to pick apart where they have gone wrong, and sketch a blueprint Democrats can use to get their mojo back.

Inauguration Day is a big reality check for disillusioned Democrats and progressives who remain shell-shocked over the election. It’s become a galvanizing moment for the opposition, which is assembling in Washington and around the country to send a loud message of resistance and plot a comeback. While the focal point of their effort will be the massive Women’s March on Washington on Saturday and scores of affiliated marches elsewhere, many are not waiting to show their defiance.

There is no shortage of soul-searching taking place this week, as Democrats wrestle with the collapse of their coalition on election day and the realization that their troubles extend beyond Hillary Clinton’s performance. While arguments will persist over who’s to blame and the best direction for the Democratic Party, Friday marks a moment to harness the resilience and unity that Trump’s rise has helped foment among the left.

Speaking up is more complicated for some than others. Dozens of members of Congress struggled to find the appropriate form of protest. They anguished over the idea of boycotting, which threatened to undermine a pillar of democracy lawmakers hold sacred: the peaceful transfer of power. Ultimately, at least 44 Democratic lawmakers in Congress gave up their seats.

“I am sad not to be attending this ceremony,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), who was among the first lawmakers to announce a boycott. “It takes an extraordinary set of circumstances for someone like me to say they can’t be part of this. If any other Republican who ran were being sworn in, I would be there.” 

But, Huffman said, Trump’s pattern of “scorched earth, chaos and boorish behavior” persuaded him to spend the week volunteering with his Northern California constituents and presiding over a citizenship ceremony for hundreds of immigrants.

Democratic Rep. Tony Cardenas of Los Angeles will spend the swearing-in hour meditating elsewhere. “A good use of my time is to promote positivity,” he said. Fellow Angeleno Rep. Ted Lieu decided to serve his Air Force Reserve duty in California.

“It took me a while to come to this decision,” said Lieu. “The peaceful transition of power is something I take seriously.”

Huffman said that almost every constituent who had contacted his office before the election seeking passes to the swearing-in called back later to withdraw their requests.

“One exception was a school group that had already planned a multi-day trip for the kids,” Huffman said. “We’ve heard from parents and teachers who now see this trip happening under the shadow of Donald Trump. But, hopefully, they will be able to make it a teachable moment.”

Before many in the opposition lace up their marching boots on Saturday, they will attend organizing events on Inauguration Day. Union leaders who went to both of Obama’s inaugurals will instead be mapping out their message for taking on Trump. At Service Employees International Union, an organization representing a large number of Latinos, leaders will be redoubling their advocacy for undocumented workers, in defiance of a new president planning to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and restrict Muslims from entering the country.

“We are not going to allow extremists to divide us with their mythology that immigrants are taking away our jobs,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the union, who attended Obama’s second swearing-in. As with other progressive advocacy groups, the union has seen interest surge since election day. Earlier plans to increase the number of members contributing $10 monthly to half a million have been revised. Now SEIU is confident it’ll reach the 1-million mark. “People want to take action,” Henry said.

Democratic mayors who had planned to hang around and hit the inaugural party circuit after this week’s U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Washington instead packed up and left. Many went back home to begin the work of countering the incoming Trump administration.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg says officials in his city will explore how to update their decades-old sanctuary city law to provide protection to immigrants in the U.S. illegally who could be targeted by the new administration. “We will stand with people who feel threatened,” Steinberg said in an interview as he prepared to fly home.

Another disappointed Northern Californian, business mogul Susie Tompkins Buell, hopped a flight heading in the other direction. Buell, a longtime friend of Clinton and one of her biggest donors, is still registering the shock of Trump’s win. “It’s so crazy,” she said. “It is hard to believe what is happening. I said to my husband this morning, ‘This is worse than it would have been to lose to a legitimate candidate.’”

Buell said she and other Clinton friends and donors had been “all making plans to find each other” at what they expected would be Clinton’s inauguration. She considered coming to Washington anyway, to join the march Saturday. But she diverted to Miami, where her friend and fellow Clinton loyalist David Brock is convening the conference where he will join Cowan and other Democratic thinkers in mapping out where to go.

“I am really open right now to what’s next,” Buell said. “I am going with an open mind and an open heart to all of these meetings in Florida. There will be a lot to learn looking back, and looking forward. It will be good to be with like-minded people. We need to get shored up and reinvigorated and find our source of trust again.”