As Donald Trump nominated the conservative judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court on Tuesday night, the Republican Party presented a unified front praising the choice. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, descended into an increasingly familiar muddle of conflicting messages about how they will oppose the Trump administration.
A loud, active, and growing segment of the Democratic Party’s grassroots want all-out warfare against any nominee who isn’t Judge Merrick Garland — President Barack Obama’s nominee for the seat — while most Democrats in Congress have been far more reserved in their rhetoric.
Most Senate Democrats released respectful statements about ensuring a “thorough and fair process” to fill the seat held by the late Antonin Scalia, a conservative Republican. That seat has been open for almost a year after Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., did not allow so much as a hearing for Garland in the final 10 months of the Obama presidency.
Ultimately, only five of the 48 senators in the Democratic caucus announced Tuesday night that they would oppose Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday night that Democrats will insist Gorsuch will not be confirmed with a simple majority but will use the filibuster to require 60 votes.
The Democratic base is not so open-minded. Hours before Trump announced his pick, thousands gathered outside Sen. Chuck Schumer’s Brooklyn home demanding the Minority Leader filibuster the choice. “Welcome to the resistance,” one union organizer announced on a megaphone to cheers. The organizers behind the “What the f***, Chuck!?” demonstration also delivered Schumer protein bars so the most powerful Democrat in the country “can regain his strength,” as they put it in their Facebook invite.
The disconnect between some Democratic representatives and many of their voters may be emblematic of the more fundamental disconnect between Washington and the country that became a central theme of the 2016 presidential race, both in Trump’s rise and Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign. Many activists have already said they will follow Sanders’ lead and take on the Democratic Party establishment in the next election. That could mean lawmakers receive primary challenges in 2018 if they decide not to distinguish themselves sufficiently from Trump. If Democrats accede to their base’s wishes for resistance, congressional dysfunction could escalate to levels not seen in generations.
That’s because any compromise with Trump is a form of appeasement to many of these grassroots organizers and they are willing to work to make those Democrats pay. “Senate Republicans stole a Supreme Court seat in plain daylight,” Dan Cantor, the national director of the Working Families Party, told VICE News as he steamed about Garland, a sentiment echoed by MoveOn.org, Center for American Progress, and other groups of the left.
Cantor helped organize with other progressive groups over 100 protests across 42 states Tuesday, including the one at Schumer’s home as part of #ResistTrumpTuesday’s. “Democrats should listen to the people in the streets, grow a spine, and do everything threy can to block Trump’s nominees.”
Not a single Democrat has voted against all of Trump’s nominees even though the party’s base is calling for them to do just that. And there isn’t a uniform strategy among Senate Democrats either. Some like Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and Tim Kaine, D-Va., have voted in favor of all of Trump’s nominees that have come to the Senate floor while Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has voted against all but one, Nikki Haley as ambassador to the United Nations.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., the only Senate Democrat to preemptively oppose Trump’s Supreme Court pick, told VICE News that Democrats “can’t just be here and be complicit.” He said that business-as-usual among Democrats won’t suffice because “I don’t think the nation has ever seen anything like” Trump and his nominees. Merkley channeled the base when he said that “it is illegitimate for anyone to be nominated who isn’t Merrick Garland.”
But most Democrats, at least for now, did not openly enlist in The Resistance and instead pledged to uphold the Senate tradition of giving a president’s nominee a fair hearing. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., for example issued a statement praising Gorsuch’s “impressive résumé and academic background.” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., was also deferential in a statement, saying, “I look forward to questioning Judge Gorsuch about his positions on the most important issues.”
Some Democratic Senators also promised not to employ the same obstructionist tactics that McConnell did the previous year. “There’s no doubt what they did [on Garland] was wrong and unconstitutional,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., recently told Politico, before adding, “In the end, I don’t think we should play their game.”
Such statements are either noble-minded or unilateral surrender, depending who you ask. Among progressive activists, comments like Tester’s anger them almost as much as anything Trump has done.
“I really react negatively to the idea that the other side can play hardball but we have to appear reasonable because there’s some referee in the sky judging what’s fair,” said Ezra Levin, the co-founder of the Indivisible Project, a grassroots organizing venture that has caught fire among progressive activists. “Trump has no intention to play fair and no intention to play by the rules, and he’s going to hurt the most vulnerable people in society in the process.”
But some Democrats argue that being combative and uncompromising could alienate moderate voters that the party will need in the 2018 midterms when they defend 10 Senate seats in states that Trump won. Democratic lawmakers should privately obstruct while being publicly magnanimous, the strategy goes.
Levin, who worked on Capitol Hill for several years, contended that obsessing over such public posturing and tactics is a “loser strategy” for Democrats in the Trump era. “There is a certain sort of D.C. politico, and this exists on the right and the left, that really likes to play three-dimensional chess, and they think there’s a smart way to give the appearance that you’re doing one thing and get to your end goal through zigzags,” he said.
“Maybe there’s someone out there that can practice ‘House of Cards’, politics but the Democrats haven’t proven themselves capable,” he said.
In a sentiment echoed by numerous activists in interviews over the past several weeks, Levin hoped Democratic lawmakers would instead “create a great contrast with the other side.” Democrats should boldly stand on principle, Levin argued, and oppose in Trump “slandering muslims” and “touting torture.”
Some Democrats in the Senate, like Merkley, and in the House, like Ted Lieu of California and Ruben Gallego of Arizona, have embraced the base’s thirst for battle. Gallego released a statement ahead of Trump’s Supreme Court announcement Tuesday instructing Democrats to “draw a line in the sand on the Senate floor” since “Republicans have broken all kinds of norms in their pursuit of power and we must check them.” Lieu tweeted late Tuesday that since Republicans blocked Obama’s Supreme Court nominee through the election, there should be “no hearings [for Gorsuch] until next election.”
Sen. Merkley expressed optimism that the rest of his colleagues would eventually join him in the fight. If Democratic lawmakers weren’t aware of the fear and anger toward Trump among the base before, he said, “the massive outbreak of grassroots energy over the last two weeks has certainly made them aware.”
But again and again, thecongressional Democrats seem to be reacting to their base in becoming more adversarial rather than leading the opposition.
This dynamic was highlighted immediately after Election Day when members of Congress put forth talking points of reconciliation and pledged to work with the president. Sanders himself echoed this sentiment on his way to ascending into a Senate leadership position days later.
But the Democratic base made no such peace offering. The Saturday after the election, thousands of Democrats marched down New York City’s Fifth Avenue to Trump Tower in a “Trump is NOT my President” demonstration. #Notmypresident became a popular hashtag and was tweeted over 3 million times in the two months after Trump’s victory.
The base’s rage has since grown to movement proportions and lawmakers have been caught flat-footed.
Before Trump had had a chance to do anything of consequence, millions took part in Women’s Marches the morning of January 21st in defiance of his very presence in the Oval Office. Every candidate for chair of the Democratic National Committee except one — Peter Buttigieg — decided to attend a private donor retreat rather than attend the march.
Protesters flooded airports last weekend in response to Trump’s executive order temporarily banning refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries and again Democratic members of Congress rushed to join the demonstrators rather than organizing them themselves.
Senate Democrats have resisted somewhat by dawdling on Trump’s nominees. Only five of 22 have been confirmed so far. Such delay tactics have angered Republicans on Capitol Hill and prompted Trump to repeatedly complain about it on Twitter and in real life.
But after dragging their feet, most Democrats in the Senate have voted for the nominees so far. Grassroots activists immediately attacked progressive favorites Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, for their votes last week in favor of Dr. Ben Carson to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Warren felt compelled to explain herself in a lengthy and defensive Facebook post the following day.
This week, Democrats have taken a different tack by boycotting confirmation hearings for Trump’s nominees for Treasury, Health and Human Services, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Since Trump’s inauguration on January 20, there have been protests across the country nearly every day denouncing the new commander-in-chief as a misogynist, a racist, a xenophobe, and an all-around horrible person.
But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi maintained in a CNN Town Hall Tuesday night that Democrats in Congress have a “responsibility” to “find our common ground” with Trump. While she was critical of his policies and called him “so insecure,” Pelosi said that “we respect that he’s the president,” and “we want to work together.”
Meanwhile millions of Democrats are marching calling, visiting, emailing, tweeting, and Facebooking congressional offices extolling them to do exactly the opposite.
Cover: Images of the protest outside of Schumer’s Brooklyn home on Tuesday.