In a speech on the Senate floor Tuesday, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer declared that the early theme defining President Donald Trump’s administration was “incompetence leading to chaos.”
“It’s amazing how poorly done so many things have been that have come out of the White House in the first two weeks,” the New York Democrat said.
A few hours later during a CNN town hall, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said Trump’s selection of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court was bad “if you breathe air, drink water, eat food or take medicine.”
And in the wake of Trump’s abrupt firing of the nation’s acting attorney general, Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, a candidate for Democratic Party chairman, rushed so quickly to vilify the president he left out a word in his merciless statement.
“By all accounts, this is looking like failed presidency,” he said.
In the frenzied opening days of the rebellious Trump era, top leaders in the Democratic Party have taken a posture of relentless, immovable, caustic opposition – assailing the commander in chief at every turn and often employing extreme rhetoric to punctuate its impact. It is a cold-blooded approach that’s required for this precarious moment, they say, given the severe changes Trump is attempting on everything from how the U.S. should deliver health care to who should be allowed to become an American citizen.
But there’s a risk in outright, perpetual obstruction as well and it’s simmering below the surface in conversations between Democratic lawmakers, leaders and strategists as the party debates the most effective path forward: If Democrats protest everything with hair-on-fire outrage, will anything end up sticking with the American public beyond their infinite indignity? If they cry wolf every 12 hours, will the effect of their urgency wane over time? Instead of presenting an alternative vision, will they end up looking simply like a party of outrage?
“We need to be guided by a positive message about economic growth for everybody and a country that includes everybody,” says Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who has expressed concern about the party’s focus in reacting to Trump. “We can’t respond to everything. You have to decide what to respond to based on what your vision for the country is.”
Murphy, echoing many top Democrats, believes that message must be economic-based and populist, consistently articulating to the public why their party can deliver wider opportunity and growth on jobs, wages and financial security than Trump’s unique brand of Republicanism.
But the breakneck speed Trump has embarked on during his first two weeks has scattered that focus. The sheer number of controversial fires he’s lit on an array of topics has created a dizzying effect for Democrats.
“Whether intended or accidental, Trump’s barrage of initiatives is thus far, by sheer volume and audacity, having the effect of confusing and overwhelming his opponents,” said Benjamin Ginsberg, a political scientist at John Hopkins University.
To Democrats, it’s no accident.
It began with the executive order signaling the dismantling of President Barack Obama’s health care law, but that move almost seems like a dusty, distant memory when the rest of the episodes are catalogued: Trump’s unfounded claims of mass voter fraud in the 2016 election, his proposal to build a wall on the Mexican border, the foreign travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries, the firing of acting Attorney General Sally Yates over her refusal to enforce it, the nomination of a Supreme Court justice, the contentious proceedings of several Cabinet nominees, the terror raid in Yemen that took the life of a Navy SEAL as well as civilians, a contentious call with the leader of Australia, a reliable U.S. ally.
Friday marks the 14th day of Trump’s presidency.
Third-term Rep. Cheri Bustos, who was tapped by Pelosi to steer party messaging, represents a northwestern Illinois district full of blue-collar voters who narrowly voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton. Part of her elevation in the caucus is to bring a Midwestern sensibility to a party whose leadership is dominated by coastal legislators.
But even she says the first strokes of Trump’s presidency have proven “we are going to have a fight all the time.”
“He’s taking us down a dark path every single day since he’s been in office,” Bustos says. “Politically we can’t let being a Democrat get in the way of speaking out, no matter what kind of district we’re from. I started out by saying I’d give the guy a chance, but look what he’s done. I seriously question whether he thinks his policy decisions through to the end. He’s been very irresponsible.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee pointed to enlisting 635,000 new supporters – a 20 percent spike in the campaign arm’s list – since the New Year as evidence that the early tide of public opinion is gushing strongly against Trump.
Yet given that Trump’s approval rating is hovering between a respectable 45 and 49 percent depending on the poll, the fury emanating out of Washington and other major American cities is likely disproportional to the country at large. To some Democrats, this is a flashing alarm that incessant full-throated opposition is counterproductive.
Craig Crawford, who advised former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb’s short-lived presidential bid, says it is foolish for the party to participate in a tit for tat with Trump, who has left many a vocal opponent in the political graveyard.
“I’d leave him out of the message and appeal to his base with a meaningful jobs plan,” Crawford says. “Don’t take his bait. Braying donkeys only make noise. Democrats should present a shadow government agenda that gives working class Americans jobs and hope. Democrats should learn something from their futile efforts of the Reagan years, attacking the man instead of winning back his voter base with a positive message.”
But that argument falls on the other extreme side of the ledger. For many Democrats, it would be irresponsible and immoral to simply give Trump a pass or tamp down their disapproval for political purposes. And if they fell on their swords – for instance, tamping down their invective on the wall to focus on the foreign ban – their base would be apoplectic.
The liberal wing of the party is showing itself to be as active and animated as it has since the Vietnam War, producing crowds that are garnering comparisons to the 2010 tea party movement that ushered in the Republican control of Congress.
One left-wing group, Campaign for America’s Future, is pressuring Democrats in Congress to resist the notion of trying to work with Trump even where they see some daylight. Instead they are seeking even more pressure – through weekly Tuesday protests – to make it clear “the Trump agenda is not normal,” according to a recent statement on its website.
After Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware said he believed Gorsuch deserved a hearing and an eventual vote, the liberal Progressive Change Campaign Committee emailed its 1 million members to rebuke him.
“There is zero appetite among the public for weakness from Democratic politicians,” said Stephanie Taylor, the committee’s co-founder.
Party strategists are still wrestling with how to harness all of this energy – and there’s a realization, or at least an assumption, that eventually Trump will settle into a relatively more conventional posture, which will then present the party with a challenge of how to maintain the power of the initial opposition that flourished.
“I don’t think this pace of outrage will sustain itself for four years,” Murphy says. “It’s natural for us to be more oppositional in the early days because the policy is coming fast and furious.”
That doesn’t eliminate the challenge in the near-term though. As Republicans on all levels begin to label the opposition as “obstructionists” and “crybabies,” Democrats are huddling about how to weigh expressing their genuine principles while conducting smart politics. Given Trump’s previous political success, there isn’t a unified, obvious answer.
“There’s still robust debate on how to deal with him. And that’s not unique among Democrats, I don’t think Republicans know how to deal with him. I don’t think Reince Priebus knows how to deal with him,” says Mike Czin, a former Democratic National Committee operative. “What you’re going to see emerge is broader threads that each of these incidents speak to. There’s a competence argument. You might not follow each of these outrages that happen every 12 to 36 hours, but at a point Trump actually has to deliver results, meaningful change, not just tearing things down. Governing by anger doesn’t have staying power.”
Bustos has already held 10 listening sessions with House Democrats to brainstorm ideas about how to combat Trump as well as put forward a compelling positive argument for themselves, something she concedes Democrats “have not done well” in the past. And even more recent attempts have demonstrated the struggles of matching Trump’s branding expertise.
An early attempt to label Trump’s repeal of Obamacare as “Make America Sick Again” was seen as too gimmicky and hasn’t held staying power in the media.
“When Donald Trump labeled everything under his ‘Make America Great Again,’ that summed up everything he was talking about,” she says. “Maybe we can learn from that.”
But until then, expect more fire and brimstone and, yes, outrage from the Democratic bullhorn. Because if there’s one thing Murphy learned from Trump, it’s that polls be damned.
“On issues of conscience, I’m not going to let national polls dictate what I work on. Our party has historically been way too dependent on polling and focus groups,” he says. “What we learned in 2016 is authenticity matters. Our party should listen to its gut more than pollsters and focus groups.”