the national circus

The Democrats Need to Try Out Being the ‘Party of No’

Senator Charles Schumer. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: the president’s SCOTUS pick, Paul Ryan’s support for Trump’s executive order on immigration, and Samantha Bee’s alternative White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

Donald Trump has selected Neil Gorsuch, an originalist in the model of the late Justice Scalia, to fill Merrick Garland’s “stolen seat” on the Supreme Court. How should the Democrats respond to the nomination?
The Trump administration is still less than two weeks old, but based on what we’ve seen so far, the verdict is in: It has no respect for the Constitution, for the officials and institutions essential to a functioning democratic government, even for the most fundamental American freedoms granted to religious minorities and the press. The Trump White House has if anything declared war on American governance itself, all to facilitate “the birth of a new political order” guided by the ideas of Steve Bannon, until recently the proprietor of a white-nationalist fake-news organization, and Jeff Sessions, the attorney general–designate who has tried but not succeeded in covering up his past as a stalwart opponent of civil rights in Alabama. At a time like this, it is clearly incumbent upon Democrats in Washington to oppose, obstruct, or resist every presidential action they can. Their constituents, many of whom were less than enamored with the Clinton party Establishment that fell to Trump, have had enough and are taking to the streets. The burden is on the party’s leaders, such as they are, to catch up. Otherwise they might as well just go out of business.

In the case of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, it’s a no-brainer: It is not hyperbole to say that the Republican Senate majority stole a Supreme Court appointment from President Obama on the spurious grounds that he only had a year left in his presidency when Scalia died. The Democrats can argue no less spuriously that a president who lost the popular vote lacks the standing to fill that same seat.

So, what is the argument for Senate Democrats behaving better than their GOP peers? The case was made by the Washington Post editorial page, the most prominent Beltway champion of bipartisanship in a capital where there hasn’t been bipartisanship in the two decades since the Bill Clinton impeachment. In urging the Democrats to practice “due deference” to Trump’s nominee, the Post warned that fierce opposition might provoke the Republicans to resort to the so-called “nuclear option” of abolishing the filibuster so that a Supreme Court nominee could be approved by a simple majority of 51 votes rather than 60. If the GOP did this, the Post explained, it “would leave Democrats disarmed of that weapon against a second Trump pick should another vacancy arrive during his presidency.” How naïve can you be? The Senate Republicans would happily invoke the “nuclear option” for the second Trump pick if it doesn’t do so with Gorsuch. There’s no rationale for Democrats engaging in premature unilateral disarmament. The GOP will stop at nothing to install Trump’s court nominees, so the Democrats might as well stand up and fight from the get-go.

The Post’s other argument is that Democratic mobilization against a Trump nominee would “deepen” the “harmful politicization” that is afflicting the Senatorial process of advise-and-consent. How much deeper could that politicization be than it already is? The Democrats, President Obama included, got nowhere by trying to make nice with the Party of No for the past eight years. From the day Obama entered the White House, the GOP did everything it could to try to delegitimize his presidency, ultimately to rally around a presidential candidate who was a leader of the birther movement. That candidate, as president, now dismisses Democratic leaders like Chuck Schumer as “clowns.” It is no time for a pacifist response.

In any case, the approval process for Gorsuch has already been politicized by Trump. His decision to announce his nominee to the court in prime time — before an audience of cheering toadies more appropriate to So You Think You Can Dance — reduced Gorsuch to the stature of a supplicant at a corrupt royal court. When Trump referred to the “late, great” Justice Scalia in his remarks, he was using language you’d expect to hear from a Vegas lounge singer paying homage to Sinatra. All that was missing was a reprise of Trump’s chosen inaugural-ball anthem, “My Way” — though, contrary to that song’s lyric, the end is not near, alas.

After silence in the face of nationwide protests and pushback on both sides of the aisle, and despite speaking out against a Muslim ban when Trump proposed it on the campaign trail, Speaker Paul Ryan has come out in support of Trump’s executive action on immigration (though he admitted the “rollout” was “regrettable”). Is he making a mistake?
As I and others have been saying ad infinitum, Paul Ryan is the leading Vichy Republican, a coward who will do anything to hold on to power. His Hamlet-like equivocations about Trump during the campaign always ended with capitulation. This surrender was just more of the same — he once again weighed in late, with trying-to-have-it-both-ways language, and with no discernible moral compass.

Is he making a mistake? Not with the Trump base he is terrified by and panders to. Polls show that the overwhelming majority of Republicans — 80 per cent-plus — still approve of Trump. But when the wind changes, you can bet Ryan will change with it. Though he’s fond of releasing lofty policy prescriptions laced with cooked numbers, his only real concerns are politics and self-preservation. Can anyone name a single accomplishment he has achieved in office that befits his august station of Speaker of the House?

Samantha Bee announced an alternative gala to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner — to be held in Washington on the same night, of April 29 — partly, she says, out of a concern that the main event would be canceled this year. Does this increase or decrease the odds of that happening?
We can only hope that Bee’s alternative gala — which will offer better comedy and attract a superior audience both in the flesh and among television viewers — will force the White House Correspondents’ Dinner to cancel despite its claim that its own show will go on. This annual rite has been an embarrassment for a couple of decades: a cheesy spectacle in which prominent journalists can be found sucking up to their official sources, to corporate patrons who shell out for the high-priced tables, and to show-business celebrities, not all of whom are of the first or even second tier. When a comedian hired to host the event actually draws blood from the dais with satirical darts — as Stephen Colbert most famously did in 2006 — the easily affronted audience sulks and whines and never quite grasps the fact that the joke is on them.

Some presidents, most especially Obama in his now historic takedown of Trump, make the best of their coerced appearances there. But few, if any, of them have liked having to show up. Until this president. The Correspondents’ Dinner is tailor-made for Trump; he’ll bend it easily to his will because the one subject he knows something about is show business, a trade about which the Washington-press types who run the event are utterly clueless. One way or another Trump will manipulate and usurp the night to his own advantage. The White House Correspondents’ Association should not give him the platform to do so.

There’s another reason the dinner should bite the dust. The real-news industry is under siege as never before in modern America. Steve Bannon has defamed the media as “the opposition party” and, in league with the legions of “fake news” purveyors, is doing everything he can to undermine the press’s credibility as well as to brand it as an elitist cartel out of touch with the country it covers. The sight of Wolf Blitzer posing on a red carpet, or of a newspaper reporter yukking it up with Kendall Jenner, plays directly into Bannon’s hands. In announcing that the dinner will go on despite the competition from Bee’s counter-fest, the correspondents’ association cited the fact that it gives awards to “promising young student journalists” as part of each year’s festivities. It’s pathetic that it is using innocent students as a beard to justify its unseemly bacchanal. The money the association will save by canceling the dinner should be donated to a legal-defense fund for the journalists certain to be battling the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back the First Amendment in the years to come.

The Democrats Need to Try Out Being the ‘Party of No’