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For Democrats, A Time To Find Common Ground, Or A Time To Resist?

President-elect Donald Trump is seen with House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis. on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016. (Alex Brandon/AP)
President-elect Donald Trump is seen with House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis. on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016. (Alex Brandon/AP)
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COMMENTARY

Characteristically, President Obama graciously offered his successor his help and best wishes for success, and Democrats are dutifully promising to work with the president-elect to help him succeed. Should they do so? Is this a time to heal or resist, unrelentingly?

Republicans, after all, don’t need and probably won’t seek Democratic assistance. They own the federal government; having gained the White House and held onto strong majorities in Congress, they now have the power to shape the federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court, for a generation.

What power do Senate Democrats hold? They can block Trump’s Supreme Court nominees, but not for four years and not at all if the Republican majority eliminates the Supreme Court filibuster. They can also filibuster Republican legislation.

The question remains: should they do so?

It’s an irrelevant question for Democrats in the House; it operates by majority rule, leaving the minority virtually powerless. But as long as there’s a filibuster, Democrats in the Senate retain some power. How should they use it? If the new president offers an infrastructure bill, should Senate Democrats help ease its passage? It depends on the merits of the bill you might say, and maybe it should.

Democrats may pride themselves on heeding Michelle Obama’s advice to “go high when they go low,” but that might be partly why they lose.

But it’s worth remembering how Republicans treated Obama’s appointments and proposals. They filibustered; they stonewalled. As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell famously remarked in 2010, his top priority was denying Barack Obama a second term. He didn’t say what many Democrats are saying today: We want to help the new president succeed so that the country succeeds. He said the opposite -- that he wanted to make sure the president failed.

You can call McConnell unpatriotic for not making the national welfare his “top priority.” But while Republicans failed to deny Obama a second term, they succeeded in denying him legislative accomplishments and blocking his appointments to federal agencies and courts, including his nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. Their obstructionism paid off politically: Instead of being blamed by voters for the gridlock they caused, Republicans held their congressional majorities and took over all branches of government, while increasing their dominance in the states.

It was bad behavior but apparently good politics. Democrats may pride themselves on heeding Michelle Obama’s advice to “go high when they go low,” but that might be partly why they lose. Going high may make you a nice person but an ineffective political strategist.

In this Nov. 9 photo, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Donald Trump’s election will reset the balance of power in Washington, but until noon on Jan. 20, President Obama decides what can become law. (Alex Brandon/AP)
In this Nov. 9 photo, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Donald Trump’s election will reset the balance of power in Washington, but until noon on Jan. 20, President Obama decides what can become law. (Alex Brandon/AP)

So how now should Democrats behave? Should they go high or low, appear open to compromise or committed to obstructionism? Or can they finesse the question?

Here’s what Bernie Sanders says:

"To the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him. To the degree that he pursues racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-environment policies, we will vigorously oppose him."

Elizabeth Warren issued a similar statement, promising “to work with the president-elect when he wants to help low-wage workers but fight him if he attacks, women, minorities, and immigrants.”

Progressives will probably never get the chance to fulfill a pledge to cooperate with the president on the cold day in hell he agrees with them, and it won’t satisfy centrist Democrats, running for re-election in red states. This is the dilemma for the Democratic Party. In 2018, 23 Senate Democrats and two independents who caucus with Democrats are up for re-election, many in deep red or purple states. They‘ll have the unlooked-for advantage of running against a Republican president in a midterm election, but they will likely pressure the party to run toward the center and not the left. It’s a perennial debate, which presents itself now with particular urgency.

Related:

Wendy Kaminer Cognoscenti contributor
Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer and social critic, writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion, and popular culture and is currently a correspondent at The Atlantic. Her latest book is "Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity and the ACLU."

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