Democrats are shifting to a more aggressive stance against the incoming Donald Trump administration in Washington, vowing to fight what they say are alarming signs that the president-elect will carry over the most divisive aspects of his campaign into the White House.
A growing chorus of Democrats is seeking to rally those within the party to unite around a common goal of resisting Trump, while pressuring moderate Republicans to reject the most controversial appointments to Trump’s administration.
Immediately after Hillary Clinton’s surprise loss to Trump a week ago, some suggested that they might aim to work with Trump on shared policy goals. But Democrats have taken the appointment of former Breitbart News head Stephen K. Bannon as chief White House strategist and the emergence of Wall Street figures and lobbyists as candidates for top jobs as a strong indication of Trump’s plans to veer sharply right and stray from the economic populist message that he championed as a candidate.
Congressional Democrats say they have not ruled out working with Trump on areas of common ground, especially on infrastructure and populist economic policies, according to a senior Senate Democratic aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss party strategy. But they plan to train their attention on the immediate challenge of contesting Trump’s appointments to key roles, especially those that require Senate confirmation.
“There is not a lot of leverage there,” the aide said, acknowledging that the party holds no authority to halt the hiring of aides such as Bannon who do not require Senate confirmation and has limited power to stop those appointments that do. “The rub on a lot of the appointments will probably be those more moderate Republicans.”
Organized labor leaders, who represent a key constituency of Democrats, have long said that their members agree with Trump on some economic issues, especially their shared opposition to free trade agreements that they say hurt American workers. But according to one senior labor official who spoke on the condition anonymity to talk candidly, the ascension of such figures as Bannon must be addressed before cooperation is put on the table. Critics say Bannon is a supporter of racist, anti-Semitic and misogynist views.
“We can’t do business with this guy as long as he’s in the business of hate,” the official said. “Why is that? Because we’re Americans.”
Nearly a week after extending an olive branch to the president-elect, suggesting that he and Democrats might find common ground on economic issues, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on Tuesday significantly escalated her criticism of Trump’s plans for his presidency.
“This just keeps going back to, what is Donald Trump going to do?” Warren, a leading liberal voice within the party, said at a Wall Street Journal CEO Council event. “And he’s now giving us at least the first tangible sign of his vision of how to run a Trump presidency and a big part of that are lobbyists and Washington insiders and the other part of it is to bring someone who is a white supremacist into the White House to be a senior strategist.”
In an impassioned speech on the Senate floor, Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), the outgoing minority leader, denounced Trump’s decision to name Bannon to a senior role, citing his ties to the alt-right movement, which is associated with white nationalism.
“If Trump is serious about seeking unity, the first thing he should do is rescind his appointment of Steve Bannon,” Reid said. “Rescind it, don’t do it.
“As long as a proponent of racial division a step away from the Oval Office, it will be impossible to take Trump’s efforts to heal the nation seriously.”
But there is little appetite among Democrats to launch a campaign of total resistance against Trump, especially on some issues where he may need Democratic support to overcome Republican opposition to proposals such as infrastructure.
“If he’s going to be deporting millions of people, if he’s going to continue sexist decisions that take away a woman’s right to choose or, you know, support racist programs, I will do everything I can to make sure those policies are defeated,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “On the other hand, if he brings forward an infrastructure program, which is something I’ve advocated for years, along with many others — it creates millions of jobs — will I be supportive? Yeah.”
The politics of total resistance is also viewed by some Democrats as a political miscalculation made by Republicans that they are unwilling to repeat.
“We have to do what we think is right depending on what issue he’s pushing,” said former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who is one of several candidates running for chair of the Democratic National Committee. “If it’s a decent bipartisan tax bill, that’s great.”
“Should we resist the way Republicans resisted Obama? Of course not,” he added. “It’s not good for the country.”
The emerging strategy comes as forces within the party are vying for influence over who will lead Democrats both in Congress and outside it.
A group of more recently elected congressional Democrats and those who represent Midwestern districts won a major victory on Tuesday when they successfully postponed the election of the House minority leader, a position that Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is seeking to hold onto. Those Democrats are clamoring for change, urging the party to make its leadership more representative of the party’s younger and racially diverse coalition.
Rank-and-file members also blame the Democratic leadership for failing to respond to the concerns of their constituents in parts of the country, such as the industrial Midwest, where Trump won surprise victories or beat expectations.
“There is broad angst in the Democratic caucus,” Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), who supported the decision to delay the elections, told reporters. “To stick with the same message over four bad election cycles is a mistake. I think part of it is that the messengers have to change.”
A leading contender to challenge Pelosi is Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), an eastern Ohio lawmaker who would give voice to a desire for greater attention to job creation and working-class issues.
Dean, who has previously served as DNC chair, is on a growing list of figures in the party seeking the DNC chairmanship. The Chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, Jaime Harrison, has also put his name in the running and others, including former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley and Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, are considering runs.
Another top candidate, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) also announced his candidacy this week. Some Democrats quietly worry that Ellison, a prominent black and Muslim lawmaker, would signal that the party is doubling down on social and cultural issues over addressing economic anxiety. Democrats such as Dean have also argued that the DNC job should go to a candidate who can commit to it full-time.
Yet Ellison, who has been endorsed for the DNC job by several top congressional Democrats, was also an early supporter of Sanders in his primary run against Clinton and has focused on jobs and economic populism in his pitch for the job.
“My view is that progressives need to have a stronger sharper message on the economic anxiety that all people are facing, not just white working class voters, but all working-class voters,” said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. “But I also think there was a sharp anti-Washington message and that is something we need a political reform agenda to address as well.”
Anguished Democrats are taking stock of the depth of their losses and trying to identify slivers of political openings in the Trump era. Debate about the best way forward consumed a group of top donors, such as billionaire investor George Soros, who gathered for a three-day meeting this week at a luxury hotel in Washington.
Soros told fellow liberal donors on Tuesday that he believes Trump is a would-be dictator, adding that he was confident that America’s institutions would serve as a check on the new president’s power — as long as a vigorous opposition is in place to push back against his policies, according to someone familiar with his remarks.
In a question-and-answer session with Democracy Alliance President Gara LaMarche, the billionaire investor ticked off a list of urgent priorities for the left, including protecting Muslims and refugees who could be targeted by the new administration and strengthening groups that could challenge Trump on constitutional issues.
“I think once people see the agenda that they looked past in action — abortion rights under threat, the cost to communities of deportations, the embodiment of bigotry and rise of hate crimes — I think there will be buyer’s remorse, perhaps even by Inauguration Day, that will give us an opportunity for a hearing,” LaMarche said in an interview.
Wagner reported from New York. Matea Gold, Paul Kane and Kelsey Snell in Washington contributed to this report.