The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A bad week for Democrats gives rise to a big problem: Outrage could become an obstacle in midterms

The Fix’s Aaron Blake analyzes whether calls for “civility” will help or hurt Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Growing liberal agitation over a pivotal Supreme Court retirement and a simmering crisis about immigrant child separation have left Democratic leaders scrambling to keep the political outrage they’d counted on to fuel midterm election wins from becoming a liability for the party.

Internal party debates have broken into public view over maintaining civility and the usefulness of liberal slogans like “abolish ICE,” which some Republicans have embraced to argue falsely that Democrats oppose immigration enforcement. At the same time, liberal activists have begun to argue for more radical measures to counter President Trump, who they assert presents an immediate threat to the republic.

The conflict comes after several weeks that have highlighted the consequence of Trump’s 2016 election and his continued political strength. As he promised during the campaign, Trump is changing the country in profound ways, including through harsh immigration enforcement measures. With the retirement announcement last week from Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Trump also has an opportunity this fall to remake the ideological balance of the court.

Thousands of demonstrators marched nationwide to protest President Trump's "zero tolerance" immigration policies on June 30. (Video: Allie Caren, JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Democrats have had only limited options for fighting back, and many in the party are resigned to the confirmation of a new justice who could vote to undo key liberal victories, including abortion rights and legal protections that allow people with preexisting conditions to afford health insurance.

Filmmaker Michael Moore, a liberal activist, called on the party to abandon a focus on “warm and fuzzy” notions like hope — the sentiment that powered Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign only a decade ago — and embrace a more hardball type of politics. As an example, he proposed surrounding the U.S. Capitol with 1 million protesters in an effort to keep Republicans from voting on a replacement nominee until after the next Senate is elected and seated.

“What would you give your life for?” Moore asked in a call to action Friday on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher.” “That moment is now. We are going to lose our democracy, if we haven’t already.”

Others like Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), a likely presidential candidate in 2020, called Sunday for more street protests, along the lines of the 750 rallies that were held Saturday to protest the continued separation of immigrant children from their parents.

“It is up to each of us to use our voices and take to the streets to fight for who we are,” she tweeted Sunday.

Other Democrats have called for caution, wary that shifting focus from the midterm elections would be counterproductive, as would a divisive intraparty fight over what makes up acceptable policy positions.

Obama urged Democrats at a fundraiser in Beverly Hills on Thursday to aim their energies squarely on the ballot box in November, saying that “it is entirely within our power” to solve the political problems of the moment.

“All these people are out here kvetching and wringing their hands and stressed and anxious and, you know, constantly watching cable TV and howling at the moon, ‘What are we going to do?’ Their hair is falling out,” said Obama, arguing for a reasoned response. “The good news is that if you act, if we act, then the majority of the American people prefer a story of hope.”

Others have cautioned that liberal demands for transformative policies, including abolishment of the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency and costly guarantees of government jobs, free health care and free college could backfire in parts of the country where Trump won in 2016, and where Democrats will have to win in November to reclaim control of Congress.

“There is a big difference between a strategic message targeted to win an election and an emotional call like ‘Abolish ICE,’ ” said former congressman Steve Israel (N.Y.), who led the Democratic House election effort for two cycles. “One feels good for the person screaming, and one works for the person voting.”

He cautioned Democrats to remember that their focus must be on opposing Trump, not fellow Democrats. Polls continue to show Democrats maintain both an enthusiasm advantage and an advantage in the generic ballot heading into the fall campaign, with about 60 Republican-held House seats now considered competitive, compared with just a handful of Democratic ones.

Democrats have three pickup opportunities in the Senate this fall, but Republicans have a chance to make gains in about twice as many seats.

“What sounds good in Brooklyn, N.Y., doesn’t work in Brooklyn, Iowa,” Israel said.

That nuance has been embraced even by the latest symbol of the liberal revolt, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who scored an upset victory in Queens and the Bronx last week. In a congressional primary, she defeated Rep. Joseph Crowley, a top Democratic power broker, in part by embracing calls to abolish ICE and guarantee a $15-per-hour government job to every American, an idea that continues to gain liberal traction despite lacking a clear plan to fund the effort.

In a tweet Saturday, Ocasio-Cortez acknowledged that not all Democrats could embrace ideas as radical as the ones she espoused.

“A major point of my campaign: in the safest blue seats in America, we should have leaders swinging for the most ambitious ideas possible for working-class Americans,” she wrote. “You’re largely not going to get gutsy risk-taking from swing-district seats.”

She called that reasoning a matter of “mindfulness.”

Other liberal strategists also urged Democrats to avoid making any single issue a defining issue of the party, given the need to win in more conservative parts of the country.

“Trump wants to make this election season about immigration,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, a group that advocates a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the country. “What’s most important for Democrats to do every day is to point out that Trump is trying to scapegoat immigrants to distract from the Republican threat to health, education, social security and income inequality.”

For his part, Trump has embraced the “abolish ICE” catchphrase as a boon to his party’s midterm hopes and a way to shift attention away from the family crisis at the border, which drew disapproval even from fellow Republicans. Democrats who want to dismantle the agency still support continued enforcement of immigration laws under different guidelines in the interior of the country, a fact Trump has declined to acknowledge.

As he has before, Trump cast Democratic opposition to ICE as tantamount to embracing violent gang members.

“I hope they keep thinking about it because they’re going to get beaten so badly,” he told Fox News host Maria Bartiromo in an interview that aired Sunday. “You get rid of ICE, you’re going to have a country that you’re going to be afraid to walk out of your house.”

Democrats have been split on how to handle the question. Many of the likely candidates in the 2020 presidential race, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), favor replacing ICE with a new agency to carry out its functions with a different set of priorities.

Others said the problem is not the bureaucracy but the policymakers at the top.

“I think what has to change are the policies, and the people that are making these policies are making horrendous decisions like separating kids from their parents,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) in an appearance Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “We are always going to need immigration enforcement.”

Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic Senate candidate in Texas, adopted a similar position last week, saying he did not want to abolish the agency, even as he said he would seek to end policies like the one that led to family separations. “I just want to make sure we are constructive in how we talk about meeting this challenge,” he said at a town hall Friday in San Antonio, according to the Texas Tribune.

The depth of liberal despair and frustration has been showing up for weeks on the campaign trail, as Democrats have been confronted with the limitations imposed by their minority status on Capitol Hill and Trump’s success in pressing his priorities from the White House.

Potential 2020 presidential candidates have been trying to redirect the energy.

“I’m scared. You’re scared. We’re all scared,” Warren says in a video her campaign posted online from a recent town hall, which has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. “I get it that it is hard, but here’s the deal about democracy. Nobody said it would be easy.”

Another possible presidential candidate, Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio and Obama-era secretary of housing and urban development, has spent the past several weeks touring the southern border to bring attention to the child separation issue.

He said that the intraparty squabbles are typical and healthy for a party that is out of power and looking to the future. Democrats are a long way from settling on a new leader and vision to challenge Trump in 2020.

“I see the marches that happened this weekend and other protests as fundamentally positive,” he said. “And now the challenge is to turn that into a Democratic wave in November.”