A lot of fuzzy-headed confusion, and unwarranted panic, seem to be swirling around the question of how the Democrats should deal — or refuse to deal — with Donald Trump. What concerns me in particular is the notion that if the Democrats do anything but fight against Trump tooth and nail, they are acceptinging to the unacceptable, normalizing the decidedly abnormal. Capitulation.
A New York Times article bears the title, “Senate Democrats’ Surprising Strategy: Trying to Align With Trump.” Articles on Slate berate Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders for blowing the battle by talking about their readiness to work with Trump on things like an infrastructure program, getting better trade deals, and other ideas that Trump talked about while he was running for president. And so on elsewhere.
This concern is misguided, and the strategic thinking behind it is faulty. Warren and Sanders have struck precisely the right note. And I would like, here, to articulate what should be the guiding principle and the strategy of the Democrats’ dealing with the rise to the presidency of this abominable man.
The guiding principle should be this: The Democrats should act in every case in order to minimize the damage to the nation from the Trump presidency and even, to the extent that this proves possible, to maximize what van be accomplished for the good of the nation.
The strategy should be to push for whatever will serve the nation — which necessarily will require making common cause on specific constructive proposals with Trump and/or the Republicans and Congress — and also at the same time to oppose as powerfully as possible all the proposals that would take the nation in the wrong direction.
That’s pretty much what like Warren and Sanders –leading figures of the Democratic opposition — are saying. They understand fully how repugnant and dangerous this Trump presidency will be. But they understand also that calling on Trump to make good on promises (that were probably only a con man’s way of getting average Americans to support him) could be a good way to undercut his public support.
One wonders: are the critics of this policy calling for the Democrats to take the posture that the Republicans took toward Obama, of making his failure their only goal, and of obstructing even those measures that they recognized to be positive steps forward for America?
That across-the-board obstructionism was a shameful strategy, one that should have been punished. For any party to seek its own advantage at the expense of the good of the nation is a blatant display of a lack of the most fundamental kind of patriotism.
Yes, that strategy worked for the Republicans. But the only reason it worked was that the Democrats failed to make it the prime issue it deserved to be from the time it began, in 2009, through to the time this year when it was used to abuse the constitutional system in order to steal a Supreme Court seat.
The Republicans — who have been for years the opposite of the Democrats in that they denounce in the loudest terms scandals that are simply made up, while the Democrats have let pass real scandals of the highest importance — would not make that same mistake.
Better for the Democrats — even for their own partisan purposes — to be visibly being guided not by “How can we hurt the president?” but by “How can we best serve the nation?”
With Donald Trump as president, there will be no shortage of opportunities to score political points by opposing and denouncing him, protecting the nation from the worst political elements to take power in our history.
(Regarding which, it should be noted that the Democrats have evidently made a smart move by quickly going on the attack against the appointment of Steve Bannon, calling upon Trump to “rescind” his appointment of Bannon as his strategic advisor. We can tell that it was a well-chosen point of attack because, when the media followed up on the Democratic attack, by asking Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell whether they would defend that appointment, they both evaded the question altogether. Driving wedges between Trump and his Republican allies will be one of the ways the Democrats can best succeed in protecting the nation from this dangerous state of affairs, where the Republicans control all the branches of government.)
The Democrats’ main source of material power lies in their 48 seats in the Senate. So long as the filibuster remains part of the Senate rules, the Democrats have leverage: they can block any legislation that they choose, making it fail or compelling improvements.
(And it looks hopeful that the filibuster will survive the desire of Republicans to eliminate it, thus eliminating this last bastion of Democratic power. Already, two senators — Lindsey Graham and Orrin Hatch — have spoken out for maintaining the filibuster. One more, plus the 48 Democratic Senators, would constitute a majority in the Senate. It would be surprising if there are not other reasonably sane Republicans who want to maintain a check on the power of this new Republican president, whom many of them did not want, and on the crazy faction among the Republicans in the House of Representatives.)
Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats should not abuse the filibuster by using that power to block everything. That essentially uses a mere Senate rule to override the Constitution, which sets up the Senate to be ruled by majority (with the VP in place to break ties). The filibuster is supposed to be a tool to protect minorities in more or less extraordinary, emergency situations. And the ascension of Trump to the Presidency, along with the decades-long hijacking of the Republican Party by a destructive and extremist force, constitutes an emergency that warrants the Democrats’ using the filibuster robustly.
But not for the sake of mere obstruction for obstruction’s sake. Their line should be:
The Republicans used the filibuster to make President Obama fail, even sacrificing the good of the nation just to make him look bad. We, by contrast, are putting the good of the nation first. And, to the extent that President Trump is willing to work for the good of the nation, we will do all that we can to help him succeed. But, where the new president and his allies want to damage America’s core values, we stand ready to do all that is in our power to block the way.
Or, to use the phrase I’ve employed here before to describe the optimal strategy for Democrats: “Seek Peace While Preparing for War.”