The Democrats’ 2020 Nightmare
It’s tough to go from dreams of controlling Congress and the White House to the reality of being less powerful than dudes who call themselves Deplorable Pepe. Despite rays of sun like the resignation of Donald Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn, Democrats have grim days ahead. They’re as marginalized as they’ve been in decades, outnumbered by Republicans in not only the House and Senate, but also in 32 of 50 state legislatures. They’ve got high-handed committee chairs steamrolling them, and the majority party threatening to confiscate parliamentary weapons like the filibuster. If you’re a Democratic legislator, you don’t get to do anything you want to do; your job is now to stop others from doing what they want to do. Sad!
One bright spot is that you don’t get blamed for everything that’s going wrong and you’re free to plan for better days. To that end, Democrats met up for a retreat last week in Baltimore, an affair that managed to be somehow both contentious yet boring at the same time. If nothing else, Democrats are bonded in their desire to regain their majorities and make Trump a one-term president. But things get tougher when they require more specificity. That’s where they’ll have to wrestle with some hard realities.
The first is that they can’t just count on Trump to mess things up and flame out. George W. Busherased our budget surplus, presided over the intelligence failures of 9/11, gave us black sites and the use of torture, and invaded Iraq based on bogus intelligence. The response of voters: let’s have another round! For all his flaws, Bush had clear convictions and aims, while John Kerry didn’t. Yes, yes: the convictions were fanatical and the aims delusional, but that just goes to show how much more politically effective bad beliefs are than vague ones. Trump, likewise, has his own convictions and a vision. And while their validity is still to be determined, they could see him through policy disasters if Democrats don’t offer a clear and confident contrast.
This means that Democrats have to decide what they stand for—something I admit I’ve argued before. While opposition parties get unfairly accused of having no ideas—since being out of power amplifies the impression that you’ve got nothing cooking—the criticisms are sometimes valid. Do Democrats believe that policy should be made primarily in the interest of Americans, or do they believe that it should be made primarily in the interest of the international community? Do they believe that economic policy is the primary remedy for social injustice, or do they believe that social policy is the primary remedy for economic injustice? Do they believe that the trade agreements we’ve made during the past 25 years have been good for Americans or not? Do they support enforcement of immigration law or not? Do they support humanitarian intervention or not?
Many seasoned politicians roll their eyes at such questions. “I don’t go to moral victory speeches,” Rahm Emanuel recently told an audience in California. “It’s about winning, because if you win you then have the power to go do what has to get done.” But left unsaid is what, exactly, needs to get done—or why. Hillary Clinton had plenty of detailed policy ideas, but the bigger principles or goals often went missing. Just saying “stronger together” didn’t cut it.
Democrats also have to decide if they want to wage all-out war against Trump. The Democratic base all over the country is pressuring legislators to pursue a campaign of blanket resistance to the White House: whatever Trump wants, just vote no. The idea mirrors the tactics of Senator Mitch McConnell, who famously announced, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Since Republicans gained seats in Congress, McConnell’s approach seemed to be vindicated. Just do the same to the current president, many Democrats suggest, and win that way.
But there are serious limits to what such an approach accomplishes. Republicans have the majority, and they’re using it. Democrats have put up symbolic fights of “No,” but Trump’s Cabinet appointees are getting confirmed. Democrats will try to make life hard for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, something that honor almost demands after what Republicans did to stonewall Barack Obama’snominee Merrick Garland. But they can’t stop him.
GEORGE BUSH ERASED OUR BUDGET SURPLUS, PRESIDED OVER 9/11, AND INVADED IRAQ. THE RESPONSE OF VOTERS: LET’S HAVE ANOTHER ROUND!
More important are the costs of stubborn resistance. When Republicans refused to get involved in health-care reform, Obama wound up having to negotiate exclusively with his own side, throwing in special sweeteners and baking in flaws that might have been excised had Republicans tried in good faith to improve the bill. Not only did Republican intransigence fail to stop Obamacare, it also ensured that Republicans would hate the result even more.
Republican obstructionism didn’t help Republicans with their presidential campaigns, either. Precisely when the G.O.P. needed to remake itself and recover from the Bush years, it instead became a party frozen in place. Instead of re-examining its values and looking for ways to cooperate across party lines, it concentrated solely on tactics. That’s one reason that Mitt Romney offered voters nothing more than Bushism, but with better looks. It was doomed to fail. Had Marco Rubio, who offered Bushism with updated donor-class accessories, gone up against Clinton in 2016, he would probably would have done no better, and he certainly wouldn’t have flipped Rust Belt states like Michigan or Wisconsin, both of which Trump won.
There’s also one important difference between the policy divisions of today and yesteryear. Obama offered cross-party cooperation but not realignment. His policy priorities and outlook were those of his party alone, and he was not fighting his own side. Since McConnell never cared about healthcare reform, getting in the way of it was painless. By contrast, if Obama had come out of the gate pushing for huge tax cuts, Republicans would have had a much harder time saying no. That’s where Trump is a little different. He cares about the Republican Party only as a means by which to enact his agenda, and he’s willing to defy it when it pleases his base. If he passes an infrastructure bill with help from Democrats, Trump is happy. The same goes for a bill with tariffs on imports. That makes the case for blanket resistance weaker. To be sure, if this is war—if the only goal is to defeat Trump—then you might hurt yourself to hurt Trump, just as you might bomb your own bridges if it prevents the advance of your enemy. But that’s taking things even further than Republicans did with Obama, and it’s sacrificing a lot for the cause.
Finally, Democrats have to decide whom they’re going to run in 2020. That’s mighty tough. Already, we’re hearing arguments suggesting that Hillary Clinton could somehow be back. But she won’t be. At least not once voters have weighed in. As for the other possibilities, few are ideal. Tim Kaine is seasoned, but he will have trouble filling a stadium—or a living room. Elizabeth Warren will be 71 in 2020, and to see her more is to like her less. Bernie Sanders will be 79. Cory Booker is a show horse who isn’t that beloved in his home state. So it won’t be easy. Likelier to emerge are governors with names like Hickenlooper (first name John) or lesser-known Rust Belt types like Sherrod Brown (although he will be 68). Or maybe Al Gore, who’ll be 72. Is it finally time?