Now that the 2016 election has formally ended, and there’s no denying Donald Trump the presidency, Democrats can finally and fully focus on their strategy for opposing him. I say “opposing him,” because everything Trump has done since November 8 shows beyond a reasonable doubt that there’s not going to be some shockingly moderate Trump administration as open to Democratic as to Republican policies and priorities. Becoming a “loyal opposition” is not an option, and if Democratic leaders actually went in that direction (beyond a few formulaic expressions of willingness to cooperate with Trump if he turns out to be someone other than himself), the Democratic rank and file would probably find themselves new leaders.
There is not much question that most congressional Democrats will be taking as a template Mitch McConnell’s declaration of scorched-earth opposition to all Barack Obama’s policies and initiatives in early 2009. Partly it’s a matter of payback, but the more important motive is that it worked: Democrats lost their control over Congress at the very first opportunity, in the 2010 midterms; even before that, major elements of Obama’s agenda — including climate-change legislation — were derailed. But there are some major differences between the situation of Democrats today and that of Republicans in 2009 and 2010 that should be reflected in the party’s strategy.
Democrats controlled 60 Senate seats as the Obama era began; today’s Republicans only control 52. That theoretically gives today’s Democrats more leverage — or, at the very least, it forces Republicans to squeeze as much of their agenda as possible into budget-reconciliation legislation that cannot be filibustered. At the very beginning of 2010, however, Republicans got a huge break when GOP candidate Scott Brown won a special election for the seat vacated when Ted Kennedy died, ending the Democrats’ ability to overcome a filibuster without Republican votes. Henceforth, Senate Republicans displayed impressive unity, and 41 votes were enough to pretty much end the really productive period of Democratic rule.
Can 48 Democrats accomplish as much obstruction as 42 Republicans did in Obama’s first two years? That’s not as clear as you might think, thanks to an unbelievably difficult 2018 Senate landscape that will constantly tempt the ten Democrats up for reelection in states Trump carried to defect. Six Republican senators from states carried by Obama in 2008 were up in 2010, but all of them were from states that were narrowly blue in 2008 and ripe for reversion to the GOP in midterms where turnout patterns favored Republicans.
Unify their ranks. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer is trying to keep potentially wayward colleagues inside a “big tent” with a broad leadership team that includes the especially vulnerable Joe Manchin of West Virginia. But it will take constant vigilance and even imagination to offer a message and agenda that gives senators like Manchin, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, and Jon Tester of Montana — all from states Trump carried by landslide margins — some opportunities to sound bipartisan without actually joining Senate Republicans on important votes. Outside Washington, the best template for party unity may be Howard Dean’s “50-state strategy” at the Democratic National Committee (working in harness with Democratic Party committees in Congress) that helped keep Democrats focused on Republican weaknesses from the party’s 2004 defeat until its 2006 midterm landslide win.
Opportunities for unity will be enhanced if Democrats can get through a DNC chair contest early next year without too many recriminations, and avoid going back down the rabbit hole of finger-pointing about the shortcomings of the Clinton campaign or what might have happened with Bernie Sanders as the nominee.
Find a way to pick off three Republican senators. This will be absolutely crucial for confirmation and budget votes. Unlike Republicans eight years ago, Democrats cannot filibuster executive-branch or non–Supreme Court judicial nominations. This is a result of the party’s 2013 decision to invoke the “nuclear option” — that is, changing the Senate rules to provide for simple majorities in those situations. A key test of power in January and February will be whether 50 Senate Republicans (or fewer, if they can flip Democrats) can hang together to confirm Trump’s entire cabinet and enact a budget bill that repeals Obamacare and defunds Planned Parenthood (and perhaps other goodies for conservatives). There are already Senate Republican misgivings about Rex Tillerson at State, and all sorts of concerns about the structure and timing of an Obamacare repeal. So alert Democrats could find an opportunity to register early wins over Trump, but the need to appeal to Republicans could temper their rhetoric as well.
Beginning even before Trump’s inauguration, Democrats have to keep a keen eye out for opportunities (which may or may not arise) to split the GOP coalition — not just by picking off three senators now and then, but by exploiting any big differences of opinion between Trump and congressional Republicans (over budget, trade, or immigration policy, for example), or within the congressional Republican caucuses (perhaps a House Freedom Caucus revolt over raising the debt limit in March or a budget that does not sufficiently cut federal spending later in the year).
Develop an effective strategy for dealing with Trump’s SCOTUS nominee. A great deal of early drama will come from Trump’s pick to fill the vacancy at the Supreme Court. In theory, Democrats will be able to filibuster that nomination and beat it with 41 votes, but the odds are extremely high that would trigger the GOP’s own “nuclear option” eliminating SCOTUS filibusters, too. So again it will be a matter of keeping Senate Democrats together and “flipping” three Republicans, which will only be possible if Trump nominates a real judicial extremist.
Decide when and how to fight for Obama’s executive orders. Still another theoretical opportunity to thwart Trump will be on votes to overturn recent Obama regulations via the Congressional Review Act (which will probably be amended to allow bundling of regulations to be killed into a single bill). Democrats must decide if such measures, which may attract Senate Democrats, are worth trying to stop with a filibuster. And they must also keep in mind that if they become too frustrated, Republicans could take the ultimate step of “nuking” filibusters of regular legislation.
Get prepared for what will probably be the most important bill of all — the GOP’s 2018 budget. After all these exciting preliminaries, the 115th Congress will settle down to “normal” business, though later in the year the odds are very high that Republicans will try to move a second, much larger budget-reconciliation bill that will likely include high-end tax cuts, defense spending increases, and potentially very large cuts in safety-net programs — in effect some version of the Ryan budgets congressional Republicans have been kicking around for years.
Hope that they’ll have a chance to fight for Medicare. Democrats are already expressing hopes that Trump and the GOP will overreach in their legislative onslaught and do something politically perilous like big changes to Medicare (entirely possible) or Social Security (much less likely). If that happens, congressional Democrats and their allies will replay the successful 2005 effort to beat back George W. Bush’s partial privatization proposal for Social Security, and no matter what happens the subject will be a big part of Democrats’ midterm message in 2018.
Barring that easy call for Democrats, they may be able to find other initiatives Trump and congressional Republicans are pursuing that can be exploited for public-opinion advantage or even a rare congressional victory. For example, if either in the Obamacare repeal bill or later Republicans pursue the plans both Ryan and Trump have embraced to turn Medicaid into a block grant (flat or reduced federal funding in exchange for state flexibility in running the program), the blowback from Republican governors and legislators worried about funding could cause problems, especially in the Senate.
Try to flip the House in 2018. Ultimately, of course, any Democratic strategy for dealing with the new realities created by the 2016 elections must aim at an electoral payoff, and again, their prospects do not quite resemble those of Republicans heading into what turned out to be a 2010 landslide. The aforementioned Senate landscape probably makes any Senate Democratic takeover in 2018 all but impossible. And so in contrast to 2016, Democrats, their donors, and advocacy groups will likely focus on the House, where the 26-vote gain necessary to flip the chamber could become feasible if the Trump administration stumbles badly or Republicans overreach. Democrats will also, of course, spend a lot of time going into 2018 on state-level elections, in preparation for the round of redistricting that will follow the 2020 census. And in both efforts they will need to solve the puzzle of how to get constituencies that typically do not turn out proportionately in nonpresidential elections to vote in a midterm.
Get ready for 2020. If Democrats fail where Republicans succeeded in decisively winning that first midterm after the White House has changed hands, they could still succeed where Republicans failed against Obama by denying Trump a second term. How to do that is a subject for many separate columns, but obviously doing damage to the ruling party wherever possible is part of the prep work.
Find tea-party-levels of intensity in the base. Above and beyond all the “inside baseball” strategies I’ve been talking about, Democrats must begin building the kind of “outside” organized pressure that the Republicans benefitted from when the tea party arrived on the scene in 2009. If the specter of Donald Trump in the White House does not generate immense energy for a popular opposition that need only be organized to unleash regular fury on a Republican-dominated Washington, it will be even more surprising than the mogul’s election.
It’s all quite a challenge for a Donkey Party that did not expect to be in this situation, and that is still tempted to engage in recriminations over Hillary Clinton’s nomination and campaign, or to struggle to define its own soul.
But if Republicans could succeed in thwarting a president as popular as Barack Obama was at this point eight years ago, Democrats ought to be able to do as well against the president who won the White House despite a historically low approval rating and immense concerns about his very legitimacy. It’s too late to do anything about the legitimacy issues, but Donald Trump’s popularity has not necessarily bottomed out.