There are two things in the news recently that are likely bugging Democratic activists. For one thing, Democrats in Congress have seemed less than brilliant in dealing with the conflicts underlying the spending and immigration negotiations and last month’s government shutdown. For another, the party’s polling numbers — particularly as reflected in the loss of a big lead in the congressional generic ballot —have been drifting downward, making a November Democratic “wave” election less of a certainty than it seemed at the end of 2017.
Are the two phenomena actually related? That’s the argument made by Will Stancil in The Atlantic: Democrats have been losing ground in public opinion as they’ve abandoned the earlier strategy of total opposition to Trump. That’s because by treating Trump as a legitimate president, they’ve helped shore up his viability and threatened to demoralize “the resistance” whose mobilization will be the key to Democratic victories in 2018 and 2020.
Until now, Democrats have capably exploited this political opportunity. They have, in effect, employed the same obstructionist tactics that were utilized by Republicans against President Obama. By declaring the president anathema, Democrats electrified their party and mobilized everyone who is frightened of him. This is a particularly canny tactic because, as was demonstrated in the Obama era, even voters frustrated with gridlock and chaos mostly blame the president and his party.
But now, says Stancil, there’s a “creeping acquiescence” toward Trump among Democrats as reflected in the budget deal and the immigration negotiations.
[T]oday, in the highest circles of Democratic party politics, resistance is waning. “This is normal enough,” many key Democrats seem to be saying. When Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer wrote in advance of Trump’s State of the Union several weeks ago, he focused on finding ways to “work with” the president, such as infrastructure.
Bipartisan rhetoric is nothing new from politicians, but Democrats appear to be slipping towards making substantive policy concessions to Trump. Particularly in the Senate, Democrats have, bit by bit, begun acceding to Trumpian demands.
It’s an interesting argument, particularly since nothing would be easier for Democrats than to ignore policy issues, reject every opportunity for negotiations, stick a big hatpin through their frontal lobes, and just howl at the moon until Congress is theirs and Trump is gone.
But there are some problems with it. For one thing, it’s not all that clear Democrats could have hung onto a strategy of total resistance in early 2018. The federal government had to be funded in order to operate. There is no way to pass an appropriations bill without Democratic votes in the Senate. Yes, you can argue that Democrats should have struck a better bargain with Republicans to reopen the government after it shut down. But it seems to be the very act of bargaining with Trump and his allies to which Stancil objects. “Resign or we’ll never let the government function” is not a winning message even for a party whose core followers might initially cheer it.
For another thing, projecting oneself as the proud member of the uncompromising anti-Trump resistance just isn’t an option for members of Congress from areas that were and remain pro-Trump enclaves. Yes, senators like Joe Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp, Jon Tester, Joe Donnelly, and Claire McCaskill need an energized anti-Trump “base” to turn out for them. But it’s not going to be enough. And exhibiting a frustrated willingness to work across party lines — which is really what Senate Democrats have mostly been doing, along with trying to form a coalition with those Senate Republicans who are fighting Trump on immigration — is going to be more effective than heading to the barricades.
It’s also less than clear that the slightly more conciliatory tone of congressional Democrats has had much of anything to do with flagging poll numbers. Senate Democrats called off the government shutdown on January 22. By then they’d already lost a large chunk of their congressional generic ballot lead, which (according to the RealClearPolitics averages) peaked at 13 percent just before Christmas and had dropped below 8 percent by January 22. What else might have been going on? Well, a lot of things: more positive attitudes about the GOP tax bill (which Democrats never stopped attacking); more economic optimism; and a stretch of time when President Trump didn’t dominate the news with some fresh hellish screwup.
Stancil is right that Democratic turnout needs an energized “base” that never loses its focus on reducing Trump’s power. But much as “base turnout” is essential in midterm elections, it doesn’t eliminate the need for at least some persuasion, and maybe more than some in very hostile territory. So it’s never going to be as easy or as promising as it sounds to turn the Democratic Party into a pure and sweet instrument of total opposition. That is particularly true since Democrats do not share the stridently oppositional psychology of a Republican Party whose base hates government, hates the 21st century, and hates the very idea of “progress” as it’s come to be defined in this country.
A lot of these questions may work themselves out as 2018 proceeds. It may well be that no matter what Senate Democrats do to “normalize” Trump and reduce the seething rage of activists toward the 45th president, said president — who has his own “base mobilization” needs — will keep the “resistance” revved up at the failsafe point by his outlandish behavior. He is, after all, the reason for the resistance, which would exist and thrive with or without the active help of the Democratic Party. I personally see no reason to believe that Democrats or those elements of the news media or civil society who fear Trump’s excesses have gone soft on him.
But those Democrats who are in public office have to pick and choose moments of loud opposition, and sometimes even have to sound conciliatory. Yes, if anyone voting in November doubts Democrats are the anti-Trump party, that’s a problem. But snarling and snapping every minute until then is probably not necessary to maintain confidence in the Donkey’s bite.