Senate Democrats think they can hold Donald Trump accountable by challenging him to deliver on issues where he has made populist noises.
Supporters of this strategy insist that offering to work with Trump where he shares Democratic goals is the best way to split the Republican Party or, alternatively, to expose Trump’s flimflam if he fails to deliver for working-class Americans whose cause he rhetorically championed.
In normal circumstances, this approach might be just the ticket. Unfortunately, this moment is anything but normal.
Millions feel vulnerable to Trump’s moves on immigration and doubt his commitment to equality before the law. We should be alarmed by his flouting of widely accepted norms governing conflicts of interest and the right to dissent. There is good reason to ask Democratic leaders to send unambiguous signals of resistance.
His selection of right-wing figures such as Stephen K. Bannon and Michael Flynn for White House posts and of longtime civil rights foe Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general only feed legitimate demands for a strong pushback.
It is not a form of paranoia to worry about our basic liberties under the rule of a thin-skinned and vindictive man who lashes out at even the restrained criticism issued by the “Hamilton” cast on Friday.
“This should not happen!” tweeted the birther who spent years questioning Barack Obama’s legal right to be president. Memo to Trump: Criticizing the president is everyone’s right in a democratic republic.
Charles E. Schumer, the incoming Senate Democratic leader, insists there will be no backing down when his party finds itself implacably opposed to Trump.
“Where he goes divisive, where he opposes our values,” Schumer said in a telephone interview, “we’ll oppose him with everything we have.” Opposition, he promises, will be unrelenting on the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and Wall Street reforms and in many other areas.
But the senator from New York defends the idea that Democrats should set tough standards on trade, infrastructure and other economic concerns and offer to work with Trump if he meets them.
For example, Schumer says, his party is looking for a real plan on roads, bridges and transit and would not go along with Trump’s tax-break scheme disguised as an infrastructure proposal.
Democrats will either win significant policy victories, Schumer says, or show Trump’s working-class backers where the new president’s priorities really lie.
Refusing to work with Trump altogether, Schumer said, would be “to close the door . . . when middle-class jobs and incomes are at stake” and “be unfair to our constituencies.”
The Senate Democrats Schumer leads are an ideologically polyglot group confronting tough political terrain. In the 2018 midterms, 25 of their caucus members face reelection. Ten represent states Trump carried, five of them deeply red.
The let’s-test-Trump approach brings the philosophical ends of Schumer’s team together.
Democrats from the most conservative states (notably Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia) are wary of closing the door on a politician very popular with their voters even before he takes office.
Progressives such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders want to win back blue-collar voters and see an offer of cooperation as a way of pressing Trump to keep pledges that fall outside the conservative ideological comfort zones and exposing the contradictions of Trumpism.
I should say here that I have known Schumer for decades and respect his savvy and toughness. I also share his view that Democrats need to address the legitimate concerns of the economically pressed white voters they lost to Trump on Nov. 8.
For his part, Schumer says his caucus will embrace its role as “a barrier” against Republican excess. “We have no illusions about Donald Trump,” he asserted, and pledged to oppose Trump nominees if “even a scintilla of bigotry . . . remains attached to them.”
Sessions’s nomination will be an early test of this commitment, given the Alabama Republican’s extreme history on race and civil rights.
But this is just one part of the burden on Democrats. However attractive an old-fashioned let’s-pass-good-stuff strategy might seem, the alarming signals emanating from Trump Tower require more than politics as usual.
If Democrats do not issue very clear warnings and lay out very bright lines against the most odious and alarming aspects of Trumpism, they will be abdicating their central obligation as the party of opposition. This is not a time for ideological and factional positioning or for focusing on the 2018 elections.
Before they even get to infrastructure, Democrats and all other friends of freedom must make clear that if Trump abandons the basic norms of our democracy, all the roads in the world won’t pave over his transgressions.