Democrats face a profound question right now: What’s the most effective way to oppose the Trump administration and the Republican Congress? How energetic should their opposition be? Should they support Republican bills they find somewhat worthwhile? Should they give Donald Trump a chance to show that he can govern responsibly? What, in practice, does it mean to fight him?
It looks as though Trump is going to test that opposition by making one of his first big legislative initiatives an infrastructure bill, something Democrats have long advocated and which President Obama has been pushing for years, but which congressional Republicans refused even to consider on the grounds that it would increase the deficit. (As we know, Republican concern about the deficit is utterly and completely phony; it evaporates in a puff of smoke the moment a Republican president takes office.) And there’s at least some evidence that Democrats are considering joining with Republicans to pass it.
That would be a terrible mistake.
This is from a report in today’s New York Times by Jennifer Steinhauer:
Congressional Democrats, divided and struggling for a path from the electoral wilderness, are constructing an agenda to align with many proposals of President-elect Donald J. Trump that put him at odds with his own party.
On infrastructure spending, child tax credits, paid maternity leave and dismantling trade agreements, Democrats are looking for ways they can work with Mr. Trump and force Republican leaders to choose between their new president and their small-government, free-market principles. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, elected Wednesday as the new Democratic minority leader, has spoken with Mr. Trump several times, and Democrats in coming weeks plan to announce populist economic and ethics initiatives they think Mr. Trump might like.
Now, this is just one reporter’s interpretation of what’s going on. It’s entirely possible that Schumer has a multi-phase strategy: Say at the outset that you’re willing to work with the White House, sow some division between Trump and the GOP leadership in Congress, then withdraw your support and condemn the whole thing.
If that’s the strategy, it might not a be a bad one, and it would at least be a strategy. But knowing Democrats, it’s more likely that there’s no strategy at all, at least not a long-term one that everyone on their side can understand and get behind.
As a general matter, there are two reasons that Democrats might support a Republican effort on something like infrastructure. The first is that their support produces something good for the country that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. The second is that it provides some political advantage for them. And it’s hard to see either of those things happening.
On the first point, from what we can tell, Trump’s infrastructure plan consists mostly of tax breaks for private companies to build roads and bridges that they can then charge tolls on. This leaves out enormous needs, particularly the maintenance and repair that are vitally important and will return great benefits but that aren’t as easy for private companies to monetize.
It’s possible that by joining the effort, Democrats might be able to persuade Republicans to make their infrastructure bill more effective. But the truth is that Republicans don’t need Democratic votes and are just as likely to say, “Thanks for your input, but we’re going to do it our way.”
If that’s true and Democrats can’t extract major substantive concessions, do they get political benefit from joining Republicans on this bill? That brings us to what Republicans did eight years ago. You may remember that literally on the day Barack Obama was inaugurated, Republican leaders got together for dinner and decided on a strategy of total opposition: Don’t work with him on anything, fight to make every initiative fail, and generally make his life miserable in the hope they could take back Congress and keep him from winning reelection. Though Obama got reelected, otherwise the strategy was a tremendous success.
It grew from some critical insights Mitch McConnell in particular had about the way the public interprets what goes on in Washington, beginning with the understanding that the overwhelming majority of voters have only a superficial sense of what’s going on and only pay attention sporadically. That means that things that might seem important in the capital — like whether you got condemned by the Times and the Post editorial pages this morning for some act of obstruction — have very little practical impact, and you can endure the criticism if you’re getting something you want. In fact, obstruction is generally something you’re unlikely to pay a price for, because most voters will decide that “Washington” isn’t working, and put blame on the party that holds the White House, even if the fact that it isn’t working is completely the other party’s fault.
McConnell also understood that as part of that strategy, it’s important for the opposition to remain unified. As he told the Times in 2010 while discussing the Affordable Care Act, “It was absolutely critical that everybody be together because if the proponents of the bill were able to say it was bipartisan, it tended to convey to the public that this is O.K., they must have figured it out.”
For Republicans, it wasn’t all that hard to keep to a strategy of unified opposition. They despised Obama with a burning passion and were quite happy to grind government to a halt when they had the chance. Democrats, on the other hand, are going to be harder to keep together. They’re possessed by an impulse to be, and to be seen to be, responsible and reasonable, eager to get things done and make things work.
But politically speaking, that gains you nothing. And given that Republicans don’t actually need them to pass anything (depending on what they do with the filibuster in the Senate, a topic I’ll take up later on), all their support does is put a bipartisan veneer on what Republicans were going to do anyway.
To be clear, I’m not advocating anything with genuine practical consequences, such as shutting down the government or threatening to default on our debt. What I’m talking about is how you oppose the administration and the congressional majority when they have all the power.
It’s important that Democrats keep reminding the American public, every day for the next four years, of who’s sitting in the White House and what that means. Trump ran one of most vile presidential campaigns in American history, one based on racial and religious hatred, resentment and fear. He sought to normalize toxic misogyny. He celebrated violence. He mainstreamed white supremacy. His election has spurred a wave of racist intimidation and hate crimes, as bigots across the country have become emboldened by his victory to act out their most despicable impulses. He’s a demagogue and a dangerous fool, and while Democrats aren’t going to question the legitimacy of his presidency the way Republicans did with Obama, he shouldn’t ever be treated like an ordinary president with whom Democrats just have some substantive disagreements.
So, absent an incredibly powerful reason to cooperate with him on any particular bill, the last thing Trump should get from Democrats is a clean slate and a hand extended in cooperation.