Democratic senators are on the defensive this week after irate liberals called, tweeted, and showed up at campaign offices in large numbers to protest votes in favor of President Donald Trump’s nominees.
One week into Trump’s presidency, the Senate has confirmed only four of Trump’s 22 nominees as Senate Democrats pursue a slow-walk strategy. But that’s four too many for many Democratic Party activists who oppose the Republican businessman president and have criticized some nominees as unqualified.
The party’s base roared its disapproval this week with a clear message that delays are an insufficient form of opposition. Caught in the middle, the senators have also received earfuls of criticism from the Trump administration, left skeletal as a result of the delays. By comparison, both Barack Obama and George W. Bush had at least seven of their nominees confirmed by their first day in office.
Bipartisan majorities in the Senate have so far confirmed Defense Secretary James Mattis, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. No Democratic senator has voted against all four.
All 11 Democratic senators on the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee also voted Tuesday for Dr. Ben Carson’s nomination as secretary of housing and urban affairs to proceed to a full Senate vote. Even liberal stalwarts like Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sherrod Brown of Ohio voted for Carson, a retired surgeon who has no government experience or housing policy expertise.
Democrats do not have many tools at their disposal other than delays. Even if Democrats embraced a strategy of unified resistance, the 52 Republicans don’t need any of the 48 Democratic votes to confirm all of Trump’s nominees. In 2013, Democrats changed the rules requiring a 60-vote majority for such confirmations to only needing a simple majority.
On social media, in person, and over the phone, a group of vocal Democrats urged their senators to resist more forcefully. Democratic protesters turned out in force at their senators’ offices on Tuesday for #ResistTrumpTuesday to tell lawmakers to reject the new president’s nominees. They came out in the rain in New York City to lobby Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. Over 100 people waited outside Sen. Mark Warner’s office in Virginia. And hundreds more went to congressional offices across the country.
Activists also took to the digital realm. “YOU, Cory, need to obstruct everything they are doing,” wrote a commenter in response to a video from Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey about the initial days of the Trump administration. That comment drew 1,554 likes, more than any other. The second-most-liked comment echoed the sentiment, calling on Booker “and the Democrats to be MUCH tougher on the this [sic] administration.” There is also an online scorecard to monitor how senators voted on each nominee.
Such exhortations went well beyond a small group of committed ideologues on the fringe. Senate Democrats are acting as if the president is “a traditional Republican who respects the norms of governing and not a deeply disturbed, deeply ignorant megalomaniac,” Dan Pfeiffer, the former senior adviser and communications director for President Obama, said Thursday on his new podcast, Pod Save America. “We have to adjust our strategies for that,” he added.
The widespread pitchfork mood among Democrats toward Trump was evident last weekend as millions gathered in big cities and small towns across the country (and the world) for Women’s March events. The protests, on the day after Trump’s inauguration, even caught the organizers by surprise for their size.
Procedural realities be damned, the backlash against any hint of conciliation has been so brutal that Warren felt compelled to explain herself to her liberal supporters. She said Wednesday evening that she voted for Dr. Carson out of fear of Trump’s “second choice,” according to her Facebook post, which attracted nearly 10,000 comments and was shared over 9,000 times.
Such a defensive justification was a stark contrast to her combative posture at the Women’s March in Boston last weekend when she said, “We can whimper. We can whine. Or we can fight back!”
Warren isn’t alone in her “the devil we know” explanation. Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware considered voting for secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson because “I’ve frankly been reflecting on, if not Mr. Tillerson, who else might [Trump] choose?” as he put it on MSNBC’s “Hardball.” Coons ultimately did not vote for Tillerson, former Exxon Mobil CEO.
Other lawmakers have defended their votes in the name of senatorial tradition. “I argued strenuously, both as a governor and under President Obama, that you give the president, or the governor, the chance to put his team in place,” Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia told the Washington Post.
“They want us to fight, but elections have consequences,” Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii also told the Post.
None of these facts or explanations have stopped Democrats from clamoring for more and for celebrating senators for voting no. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — a rumored 2020 presidential candidate — was the only senator to vote against Trump’s first three nominees. One high school activist’s exalting tweet quickly went viral:
It appears the outside pressure may be having an effect as all the Democrats on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee announced Thursday night their intention to vote against Secretary of Education nominee Betsy Devos.
Update: NBC confirmed Friday that Minority Leader Chuck Schumer will vote against Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson and encouraged “the full Senate to do the same.”