As President Donald Trump takes office and a new Congress dawns, Democrats face what seems to be an insurmountable strategic disadvantage. As the minority party in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, they lack all the traditional tools for keeping an executive in check: no committee chairmanships, no subpoena power, and no control over the legislative agenda.
But Democrats should still take heart: they’ve been here before and won.
In the fall of 2004, Democrats were also pinned to the mat and flailing. President George W. Bush had just eked out a second-term win, edging out John Kerry. The race came down to a single state—Ohio—and a margin of just 136,000 votes. By the time a devastated Kerry conceded the race to Bush, Republicans had also strengthened their hold on the Senate by four seats—to a fifty-five-member majority—and bolstered their control of the House, outnumbering Democrats 232 to 203.
For an emboldened GOP, the new monopoly on Washington was a golden opportunity to pursue a long-cherished conservative priority: privatizing Social Security. “Younger workers should have the opportunity to build a nest egg by saving part of their Social Security taxes in a personal retirement account,” said Bush in his 2004 State of the Union address. Privatization became the top priority of the second-term agenda for Bush, who tasked advisers Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman with crafting a strategy to steamroll the Democratic minority.
But by the summer of 2005, Bush’s grand plan was in tatters. In February, just 35 percent of Americans approved of his handling of Social Security, down from 49 percent at the start of his first term in 2001. In March, Republican pollster Glenn Bolger found that 58 percent of Americans were against the proposed “private accounts.” That fall, the Bush plan died ignominiously. And in 2006, Democrats won back the House and the Senate, upsetting twelve years of GOP domination.
Bush’s Social Security plan did not crash and burn on its own. It was Democrats who steered that plane. As Amy Sullivan chronicled in these pages in May 2006 (“Not as Lame as You Think”), “Day after day, Democrats launched coordinated attacks on Bush’s ‘risky’ proposal. Without a single Democrat willing to sign on and give a bipartisan veneer of credibility, the private accounts plan slowly came to be seen by voters for what it was: another piece of GOP flimflam.”
In 2005, congressional Democrats were burdened with perceptions of being weak, feckless, and disorganized. No one today would say the same of incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, one of the wiliest and most aggressive strategists on Capitol Hill, or of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, now battle hardened after so many years playing defense. Whatever outrages Trump might propose, Democrats in Congress can and do have the wherewithal to mount an effective resistance.
The real questions are how often and when.
Contemplating the unique dangers posed by Donald Trump, and remembering the way Barack Obama was treated by the Republicans for the past eight years, many on the left are calling, understandably, for a strategy of pure and total opposition—anything else smacks of Vichy-like collaboration. But that approach is impractical and, in the long run, self-destructive. Rather, the right approach is one of “strategic co-opposition”—an art that Republicans have, in fact, perfected and that Democrats would do well to mimic.
As a practical matter, the level of investment, coordination, and party discipline that went into the fight over Social Security is too expensive and too exhausting to replicate repeatedly, especially over issues where Democratic unity could be tough to achieve. Democrats will be defending twenty-five U.S. Senate seats in 2018 (this includes two Independents: Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Maine’s Angus King, both of whom caucus with Democrats), and Republicans will no doubt double down on their efforts to pick off defectors in vulnerable states and districts. In states like Indiana, Montana, and West Virginia, now deep Trump territory, Democratic members out to save their seats will be tough, if not impossible, to corral. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, for example, has made a career as a Democratic gadfly, distancing himself from the party on issues such as guns and abortion and persistently needling his leadership.
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Democrats won their fight over Social Security because it was the perfect battleground. “You had an issue that struck a chord with the base and with the larger population,” said Ed Pagano, who was chief of staff to Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy at the time. In their hubris, Bush and his advisers believed they could not only grab the “third rail” of politics with both hands and survive, but rip it triumphantly from its moorings.
Second, Pelosi and her counterpart in the Senate, Harry Reid, managed to prevent a single defection from their ranks, even among their most vulnerable purple-state members. “I can’t remember a time when Democrats showed so much unity on messaging,” said Arshi Siddiqui, a former senior adviser to Pelosi who helped plan the charge in the House. In fact, such was the show of unity that Republicans were the first ones to blink, deserting from Bush’s sinking ship.
Third, Democrats poured enormous resources into supporting an aggressive and coordinated national effort to pound home the anti-privatization message. “We put a lot of effort into that campaign on the committees, with the rank and file, and in the caucuses,” said Siddiqui. As the deputy chief of staff and legislative director to Tennessee Representative Jim Cooper at the time, I recall daily missives in my inbox with fact sheets and talking points. Members were encouraged to hold town halls and press conferences, particularly at senior centers. The Democratic leadership also invested thousands of dollars on polling and public research to hone their message. Members used the same vocabulary of “earned benefits” and “dignity in retirement,” all of which became the dominant lexicon. “There was a laser focus, and that was the difference,” Siddiqui said.
Members in newly vulnerable seats are also wary of making “no” the predominant Democratic message heading into 2018 and 2020. “We’re going to have to stand for something that promotes economic growth, particularly in economically depressed areas,” said the chief of staff to a congressman from the upper Midwest, whose district swung from supporting Barack Obama twice to giving Trump a six-point win in November. “We need to be willing to show that we’re willing to do the right thing, and that means working with anyone who will get the job done.”
For Republicans, obstructing the work of government is consistent with their ideological goals. The more gridlock they create, the more frustrated the citizenry becomes, and the closer they get to achieving their objectives of eroding public trust in government and shrinking its footprint. And there’s no question Republicans are brilliant full-press obstructionists. In 2015, for example, the Senate managed to confirm just eleven federal judges, the fewest since 1960, according to the Alliance for Justice.
But so long as Democrats are government’s biggest champions, they bear the burden of proof to make the case for a progressive, activist, effective government. “When both parties trade off arguing that government doesn’t work, we’re the ones who ultimately bear the pain,” said one longtime Democratic strategist.
This doesn’t mean Democrats should accept the overtures of the Trump administration with trusting naïveté. Rather, the key to Democratic effectiveness in the minority is a flexible strategy of deliberate resistance and eyes-wide-open cooperation—strategic co-opposition—with the goal of maximum political and substantive gain.
Despite perceptions to the contrary, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House GOP leaders have in fact worked with Obama and Democrats when it suited their purposes. Once in a while, the result has been actual legislation, such as the Every Student Succeeds Act (the successor to No Child Left Behind) and a multiyear, $305 billion highway bill in 2015 that let everyone in Congress take home some federal bacon.
But Republicans have also been masters of faux cooperation—lulling Democrats with a show of bipartisanship comity before sinking in the knife. The best example of this is what happened with the passage of Obamacare, when Republicans were then in the minority. In the summer of 2009, in an apparent show of good faith, McConnell allowed GOP members of the “Gang of Six” to string out negotiations over the bill before ultimately instructing Finance Committee Chairman Senator Chuck Grassley to pull the plug, months after the House had passed its version of the bill. “When Republicans like [Utah Senator Orrin] Hatch and Grassley began to write op-eds and trash the individual mandate, which they had earlier championed, as unconstitutional and abominable,” Norman Ornstein later observed in the Atlantic, “it convinced conservative Democrats in the Senate that every honest effort to engage Republicans in the reform effort had been tried and cynically rebuffed.” That helped Harry Reid muster the sixty votes he needed to end the GOP’s filibuster of the bill. But the delay also served the GOP’s purposes. When Republican Senator Scott Brown took over Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in January, Democrats lost their sixty-vote majority and were forced to pass the final bill through reconciliation. That meant they were unable to “smooth out the rough edges and awkward language in the final bill.” And by making sure no GOP lawmakers voted for the bill, Republican leaders could claim Democratic overreach. “The narrative of Obama steamrollering over Republicans and enacting an unconstitutional bill that brought America much closer to socialism worked like a charm to stimulate conservative and Republican anger,” Ornstein concluded.
With any luck, Democrats won’t need to stoop to such Machiavellian lows. But two potential areas where this approach of strategic co-opposition could play out to Democrats’ advantage are infrastructure investment, which Schumer has already signaled as a potential area for bipartisan compromise, and tax reform.
The key to making this strategy work is for Democrats not to simply wait to respond reactively to whatever plans the Trump administration or the GOP congressional leadership offers up. Rather, they should put forward their own principles—ones that everyone in the coalition can live with, from Manchin to Sanders—and negotiate with Republicans in the best faith possible to arrive at an acceptable plan. Any tax reform plan, for instance, should have as its primary goal to increase economic growth and the financial well-being of average Americans. By that measure, a bill that allowed, say, multinational corporations to repatriate trillions of dollars in overseas profits on easy terms and to use that wealth to engage in stock buybacks that enrich senior executives would not pass muster. Similarly, any infrastructure plan should aim to have maximum bang for the buck and to fund projects with broad public benefits but that private developers traditionally shun, like water treatment plants and light rail. By that standard, the plan Trump announced during his campaign and again in his election-night speech, which relies on massive, wasteful, and unnecessary tax giveaways to developers for projects they might well invest in anyway, would be dead on arrival as far as Democrats are concerned.
Though some Democratic partisans may dislike the notion of offering up any sort of terms of engagement, this proactive approach has a number of benefits. By laying out a set of progressive principles around which all members can rally, Democrats can preemptively solve the problem of party unity and minimize the risk of defection. They can also avoid the label of obstructionism while at the same time answering the question of what they “stand for.” Democrats could also create an opportunity to split the GOP. Free-market conservatives have long opposed “corporate welfare” and “crony capitalism,” labels that all too perfectly describe Trump’s current infrastructure plan and will likely apply to his tax reform proposal as well.
Finally, a proactive set of terms sets up a win-win endgame for Democrats: if Republicans somehow miraculously produce a plan that comports with progressive goals, Democrats can claim bragging rights to a genuine achievement. But if, as is more likely, GOP proposals end up as giveaways to multinational corporations and the wealthy, Democrats can retreat at a time and point of their choosing, thus either killing the bill or ensuring that it will be seen as the partisan sellout to the rich and powerful that it will, in fact, be.
As for issues worthy of full-on opposition, Democrats should pick their battles. A united front is a valuable resource to be husbanded wisely, not squandered on diversions and tangents, of which there will be plenty. The best issues for bringing a full-bore opposition strategy to bear are the ones, like Social Security, that benefit the entire coalition and don’t just fire up the base. The most obvious upcoming issue that could rally the caucus is the threat of Medicare privatization, proposed by House Speaker Paul Ryan in his budget. Democrats are already salivating at the prospect of replaying the 2005 battle over Social Security, and Pelosi has already vowed Democratic opposition. Another possibility is the potential repeal of Dodd-Frank, which could also unify Democrats on the issue of Wall Street accountability.
At the same time that Democrats look for strategic openings to advance their own priorities, they shouldn’t bypass opportunities to weaponize Trump against himself. While the 2005 battle over Social Security was instrumental to the Democrats’ takeover of Congress the following year, so was the fact that Republicans hoisted themselves on their own petard with all-too-obvious displays of gross incompetence and corruption. Chief among these was the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, where Bush’s botched handling of the disaster led to months of unnecessary misery for thousands of Americans, most of them poor and African American. Bush’s designee to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, was a former commissioner at an Arabian horse association with zero experience in disaster management. It showed.
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Two thousand and five was also the year that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay resigned in disgrace after his indictment for allegedly making illegal contributions to Texas state elections in 2002 (he was later acquitted). And it was the year of Jack Abramoff, the Republican lobbyist who was indicted on federal corruption charges after collecting millions in fees from Indian tribes and whose antics helped the Washington Post win a Pulitzer Prize.
Democrats at that time did not sit passively by, hoping these follies would be obvious to the electorate. Rather, they seized every chance to remind voters of these failures with a focused, relentless messaging campaign that just about equaled the level of investment in the fight over Social Security. Remember the 2006 “Dubai ports” scandal? In 2006, Senator Chuck Schumer was tipped off to the fact that the Bush administration had quietly approved the sale of key American port facilities to a firm owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates, despite security concerns raised by the Coast Guard. Lacking subpoena power or any other tools of majority control, Schumer held press conference after press conference publicizing the deal. The ensuing coverage rattled a public still on edge from 9/11, and drew enough security-minded Republicans to his cause that legislation was passed blocking the deal, grievously injuring the president’s reputation.
This happened at a time when the American press was still wary of challenging Bush, whose approval ratings coming out of the 2004 campaign were respectable. That is not the case with Trump today. Trump enters office with far lower approval ratings than any other president-elect in the last quarter century. For all of its faulty coverage during the campaign—and perhaps out of guilt because of it—the mainstream media since the election has been aggressively reporting on everything from Trump’s continuing business interests while in the White House to the swirl of conflicts-of-interest allegations around many of his senior advisers and proposed Cabinet picks to his alarming refusal to sit down for daily intelligence briefings. Trump’s continuing attacks on the media will only stoke such coverage.
Of course, Trump has so far shown remarkable resilience in the face of scandals that would have sunk any other more conventional politician. The question is how long Republicans will continue to protect him, particularly the many who were cool to, or even opposed, his candidacy. Democrats only need a few GOP defectors to break the wall of Republican unity; this is what happened to Bush beginning in 2005. And a press corps already awakened to the exceptional dangers a Trump administration poses will feel even more emboldened to cover criticism of him that is bipartisan in nature.
The dread of Trump’s occupation of the White House—particularly in light of Hillary Clinton’s commanding popular vote win—will prompt many progressives to urge a permanent state of protest. But the worst mistake that Democrats could make in the upcoming Congress is to show their hand too soon, fall into reflexive opposition, and miss the strategic openings that are sure to appear.
Democrats, you have more power than you think. Use it wisely.