Democrats are bent on bringing down Trump rather than proposing an agenda to address widespread and legitimate needs
FROM THE GUARDIAN | JUNE 23, 2017
As the wheels of Trumplandia continue to spin, it’s been easy to overlook one glaring reality: Democrats in Congress are doing almost nothing other than finding new and creative ways to resist the Republicans. As a political tactic, that may be smart, but it leaves the public and voters with no clear or viable alternative as attention slowly begins to turn to mid-term elections in 2018.
The attempt of Democrat Jon Ossoff to stage an upset in the special Georgia House election may have floundered in part because he offered scant policy specifics. For the Democrats as a whole, becoming the new Party of No does nothing for a public that across the spectrum demands actual solutions to real problems of income, healthcare, jobs and some coherent vision for the future.
The strategy of no, no, no worked well for the Republicans under Obama, and borrowing from the same script may make political sense for Democrats in the short term, adding to the woes of the White House and weighing on congressional Republicans in the majority who feel pressed to do something and have as yet done little.
That doesn’t mean it is ultimately wise. And it certainly doesn’t engender any prospect of altering the toxic dynamic at play in Washington.
Why, for instance, are Democrats not offering their own blueprint for how healthcare needs to be tweaked and what could be done within the Obamacare framework to bring down insurance premiums? The party leaders uninspiring response is that there’s no point presenting a detailed legislative agenda that has no prospect of gaining any traction with the Republicans controlling the White House and Capitol Hill.
Yes, there are multiple proposals out there from Democrats about ways that the Affordable Care Act could be improved, but most of those stem from pre-2017 and little has been proffered by Democrats in the midst of the Republican debate on repealing and replacing the act.
Instead, the Democrats in Congress have elected to do whatever they can to thwart the Republican march toward repealing the Affordable Care Act, including taking full advantage of the Senates rules to halt of much of the Senate’s business as possible.
In many ways, that was precisely the approach of the Republicans for much of the Obama administration, and given that both chambers of Congress are now in Republican hands, that party can claim that its strategy worked.
And yet a policy of no and resistance is not in and of itself a vote getter.
No one goes to the polls to support a party whose primary claim to legitimacy is the ability to stand in the way of the other party. That, however, appears to be the primary approach of today’s Democrats. The goal, it would appear, is not just to stand athwart Republicans in Congress but to do everything possible to bring an early end to the presidency of Donald Trump.
The palpable revulsion many Democrats feel for Trump is daily evident. Trump does himself no favors with his defiant defensiveness in the face of widening probes, all legally sanctioned and resisted only at great cost and great legal and political peril for his administration.
Yet Trump’s approval ratings have stayed stubbornly in about the same range as they were during the election in 2016 and in the first months of his presidency, somewhere between 30 and 40%.
It may be that his support is waning, but it is also true that a considerable portion of the American public remains indifferent to the escalating scandals just as they remained nonplussed about the many outrages of Trump during the presidential election campaign.
The Democrats, therefore, are in jeopardy of repeating the mistakes of the Republicans in the 1990s. Obsessed with the Clintons, and viscerally opposed to the presidency of Bill Clinton, Republicans in Congress not only fueled the investigations of then-independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr, but they also believed that they were just one revelation, one proceeding, and indeed one impeachment away from casting their nemesis out of the White House and leading the country in a different direction.
But Bill Clinton proved stubbornly resistant to these attacks, and throughout the height of the impeachment proceedings in 1998, his approval ratings actually went up.
Clinton was nearly as unpopular as Trump in 1993 and into 1994, but by the middle of his second term, as Republican attacks and then legal actions became ever more extreme, his rating surpassed 60% approval and then approached 70% just as he was being impeached and only narrowly acquitted in his Senate trial.
Democrats continue to mine the lessons of Watergate, looking at the precedent of obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and how public attitudes towards Nixon eventually shifted.
They would be better off remembering the lessons of the late 1990s, when the Republicans dropped all pretense at legislating and instead entertained the feverish fantasy that if they could remove Clinton from office, power would be theirs. They were wrong then, and without offering a governing agenda other than Never Trump, the Democrats risk just as significant misreading of the public mood today.
Trump makes such an easy target that it is almost impossible for the Democrats to resist. Republicans felt the same way about Bill Clinton the late 1990s. Then and now, however, a substantial portion of the American public just didn’t care that much about the Washington drama. They may care a bit more now, what with the change in the media landscape and the inundation of the Trumplandia drama.
But by all accounts, most Americans really do care more about jobs; about the quality, cost and availability of healthcare; and about the economic future more than they care about who’s up and who’s down in Washington, including Trump.
They know that the Republicans and Trump aren’t delivering as promised, but they know as well that the Democrats are not offering any viable alternatives, seemingly bent instead on bringing down or wounding Trump rather than proposing an agenda to address widespread and legitimate needs and concerns.
The result is ever greater public disenchantment and disgust, and a deeper disillusionment with the federal government and the Washington system. That fueled Trump’s rise, and by relentlessly targeting Trump, the Democrats risk not just the same fate as Hillary Clinton in 2016 (thinking that Trump would prove so objectionable that the electorate would see the light) but worse: proving that his burn-baby-burn approach to Washington is the only way forward.
Instead of betting on an escalating strategy of opposing Trump by all means and resisting the Republicans in Congress by any means, Democrats simply must offer their own answers to healthcare, jobs, infrastructure, the challenges of technology, globalization, trade and foreign policy.
It doesn’t matter that those answers cannot become policy given the political make-up today; it matters more that citizens be presented with viable solutions that become part of the debate and are embedded in the policy landscape.
Without that, the Democrats are flirting with a losing strategy that feels good in the short-term but leaves the country and their own party deeply and perhaps irreparably hobbled.