As the new Republican Congress enters its second week, Democrats are divided over how to best confront the incoming administration: say no or make deals.
Scores of liberal activists temporarily stunned by November’s election results have roared back in recent weeks to anoint themselves “The Resistance” to Donald Trump. A progressive “Tea Party,” they argue, will slow down Trump’s agenda but also pave a path to political victory, as the Republicans’ tea party did in the Obama administration. And there are increasing signs that congressional Democrats will follow the grassroots anger and take up the “party of no” mantle they once decried.
“I think the scorched-earth point of view is the dominant point of view right now,” President Obama’s former top aide David Axelrod told VICE News. “There are a lot of Democrats that feel strongly about Trump and ‘Trumpism’ and think that on principle Democrats should oppose him at every turn.”
The Senate will become a focal point for any legislative opposition since Republicans only have a 52-vote majority and a lot of legislation will require 60 votes to break a filibuster. In his first week as Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer told CNN that “the only way we’re going to work with [Trump] is if he moves completely in our direction and abandons his Republican colleagues.”
In another interview, with MSNBC’s progressive stalwart Rachel Maddow, Schumer added: “I can assure you of this: Anything we’re going to support will get almost no Republican votes. That may mean we support him on nothing.”
President-elect Trump took umbrage at such remarks on Twitter last week, with his usual name-calling of anyone who opposes him. He claimed “clown Chuck Schumer” was playing politics instead of “working to fix” things like Obamacare, and he called for “Republicans & Democrats to get together and come up with a healthcare plan that really works.”
But liberal activists have since shown little desire to cooperate with Trump on anything. Since Election Day, #NotMyPresident has been used in 3 million tweets and #Resistance or #TheResistance has been used in 1.3 million, according to Twitter. Facebook declined requests to conduct the same analysis as Twitter, but a cursory search showed at least hundreds of thousands of users using the same hashtags.
Even former MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann has reemerged to preach defiance with GQ’s “The Resistance,” a sparse chair-and-desk online series with Olbermann calling for relentless organized opposition to “president-elect pussy grabber.” Olbermann’s series already has over 22.5 million views since Election Day across all platforms including YouTube, Facebook, and its own website, according to GQ.
Big liberal donors appear ready to fight Trump as well. In November, liberal billionaire George Soros donated $10 million to combat hate crimes he said were related to Trump’s “incendiary rhetoric,” according to the New York Times.
Perhaps taking a cue from the grassroots, congressional Democrats — led by Sen. Bernie Sanders — are also organizing nationwide protests for Jan. 15 against Republican attempts to repeal Obamacare and reform Medicare.
But some Democrats don’t think such obstructionism is good politics or ultimately good for the country. “There are a number of us that do not come to this Congress with the idea that we are going to oppose everything the Republicans want to do,” Rep. Collin Peterson told VICE News.
Peterson is a moderate from rural Minnesota, first elected in 1990. In 2016, his constituents re-elected him despite voting for Trump 61 percent to 31 percent, the most pro-Trump district any Democrat won in 2016. Peterson said Democrats like him have been defeated during Obama two terms and that embracing a strategy of intransigence will further that trend and “drive us down to a 150 member minority” (there are currently 241 Republicans and 194 Democrats).
Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has also indicated he won’t follow the “party of no” strategy, raising doubts that the Democrats could be unified in their opposition. Manchin declined to attend a meeting with President Obama on Capitol Hill last week to strategize on how to defend Obamacare and instead met with Vice President-elect Mike Pence to discuss bipartisan reform of the embattled healthcare law. Trump won West Virginia with 68.6 percent of the vote, his best performance in any state last November.
Axelrod said there is danger in Democrats creating a “cycle of mutually assured destruction” with Republicans in Congress. “With every passing round of defiance, you are eroding people’s faith in institutions, in government, and politics,” he said.
Many Democrats, including Axelrod, think this is ultimately a losing strategy for a party that puts forward a government-centric platform. “The more voters hate government, the more Republicans benefit,” Jesse Ferguson, Hillary Clinton’s deputy national press secretary, recently wrote in USA Today.
But many Democrats in and out of Congress believe cooperating with Trump will help make him successful and thereby hurt their own political prospects. Plus, they think Republicans deserve a dose of their own medicine.
Many Democrats angrily point to Republican tactics that began in 2009 when the roles were reversed and Democrats controlled the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives. Starting with a meeting on the night of Obama’s inauguration, Republicans became a united opposition against the new president’s agenda with an unprecedented use of the filibuster and fanning the flames of an emerging populist blaze.
Then Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell laid out a strategy to his colleagues that said “if Obama was for it, we had to be against it,” according to former Republican Senator George Voinovich. McConnell’s House counterpart, John Boehner, told Sean Hannity in 2010 that “this is not a time for compromise.” When it comes to the Obama agenda, he said, “We’re going to do everything — and I mean everything we can do — to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.”
Reflecting on his presidency, President Obama said McConnell’s moves were tactically “pretty smart and well-executed,” as he put it on Axelrod’s podcast “The Axe Files.” Obama summarized the Republicans’ strategy: “If we just say no, then that will puncture the balloon, that all this talk about hope and change and no red state and blue state is proven to be a mirage, a fantasy.”
This strategy of obstruction culminated in 2016 when McConnell refused to take up Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. This move so outraged Democrats that Schumer agreed the seat was “stolen” and promised on Maddow’s show last week to “absolutely” take steps to block Republicans from filling it.
McConnell responded, either cynically or obliviously, that he believed “the American people simply won’t tolerate” such jamming tactics after an election where the American people did just that.
In an interview, Axelrod said that if Democrats become the party of no, it will “be an endorsement of McConnell’s theory that the job of the opposition party is to obstruct under all circumstances.”
But the hostility toward Trump is already at such high levels among progressive activists that Democrats in Congress may feel obligated to fall in line behind their base. If they don’t, many on the left stand ready to challenge them in congressional primaries the way conservative tea party activists did in 2010.
McConnell’s theory of governance may be applied by the other side over the next four years.