A super PAC formed to reelect Barack Obama in 2012 is driving activists to congressional town halls. Veterans of Bill Clinton’s administration are joining marches and plotting bigger ones for the spring. Democratic senators who had befriended Jeff Sessions in the Senate voted — 47 to 1 — against his nomination for attorney general.
Three weeks into President Trump’s term, the Democratic Party and progressive establishment have almost entirely adopted the demands of a restive, active and aggressive base. They are hopeful that the new activism more closely resembles the tea party movement, which embraced electoral politics, than the Occupy Wall Street movement, which did not.
The pace of the activists, and the runaway-train approach of Trump’s administration, have given them little time to puzzle it out.
“He has a strategy to do so many things that he overwhelms the opposition,” Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) said of Trump, “[but] he’s creating the largest opposition movement I’ve seen in my lifetime in the United States.”
After previous defeats, the modern Democratic Party typically plunged into a discussion between a moderate wing and a liberal wing. George McGovern’s 1972 loss led to an internal party battle against the New Left. After Walter Mondale’s 1984 defeat, a group of moderate strategists formed the Democratic Leadership Council. After the 2004 defeat of John F. Kerry, a new generation of like-minded strategists launched Third Way, with a focus on lost moderate voters.
There is nothing like that in 2017. Democrats, taking cues from their base, have given Trump’s key Cabinet nominees the smallest level of support from an opposition party in history. They have joined and sometimes led protests, organizing more than 70 rallies against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and joining activists at airports to help travelers affected by Trump’s executive orders on immigration and refugees. The scale has even impressed some Republicans.
“The march the day after the inauguration probably exceeded any of the tea party marches,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told The Washington Post in an interview for C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” series. “But like Occupy Wall Street, it’s not real focused, as far as what exactly they want.”
Moderating forces, increasingly, are being held at arm’s length. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), seen as the most potentially endangered senator in the upcoming midterm elections, is derided on social media for meeting with Trump. Manchin was the sole Democratic senator who voted to confirm Sessions for attorney general. Progressive groups protested the very presence of Third Way at the House Democratic retreat in Baltimore. At a briefing with reporters, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) insisted that Third Way was only attending to give a “data analysis” presentation — and denied a well-traveled rumor that progressives had walked out.
“What’s organizing people is that they’re fearing for the country they grew up in,” said Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, which was founded by Clinton administration exiles to emulate the successful think tanks of the right. “People are definitely seeing the purpose of working through the political process to oppose him. . . . It’s a primal scream, but the truth is, since Election Day, it has been growing.”
CAP Action, the political arm of Tanden’s think tank, is one of several progressive and center-left groups urging activists to attend congressional town halls. Elected Democrats, while stopping short of that, have egged on activists in person and on social media. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), the youngest member of the party in the Senate, has also led a brusque change of tone in messaging, from defending his colleague Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) from Trump attacks (“As a prosecutor, Dick used to put guys like u in jail”) to mocking the president’s Cabinet picks (‘The chances you will be watching [C-span] are bested only by the chances a grizzly bear walks into your kid’s school today”).
“We lost. Now we fight,” Murphy tweeted after Sessions was confirmed. “Nothing is inevitable. Any anxiety or fear you feel can be cured by political action.”
Less clear is how Democrats will convert political action into electoral results. Much has been said about the failures of 2016 — chief among them the flawed belief that bashing Trump was enough, and the absence of a coherent economic message.
Yet even now, at every level of national Democratic politics, the discussion of how the party can win back voters it lost is subsumed by the argument about how to oppose Trump. The answer is always: as much as possible. And for the moment, that does seem to be engaging a broad, new population of activists. In the race for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, even Thomas Perez, the former secretary of labor viewed skeptically by some supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), has said that Democrats should hit Trump “between the eyes with a two-by-four and treat him like Mitch McConnell treated Barack Obama.”
That tone is widespread among Democrats, who were bitter about the rise of the tea party — a combination of grass-roots energy and well-funded conservative organizing — and are enamored with the idea of their own version. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who is term-limited out of office early next year, said that the new energy was manifesting in the recruitment of candidates ahead of schedule — a reversal from previous years when Republican primaries were packed with candidates, while Democrats left some state legislative seats uncontested.
“The activism is already being translated into people stepping up to put their name on a ballot,” McAuliffe said. “There’s a lot of energy. We can’t let it dissipate. I’m still so disheartened that 92 million Americans who were eligible to vote did not vote last year. Ninety-two million people sat home, and now they’re all saying, ‘Oh, my goodness, how did this possibly happen? How did Trump get elected?’ Well, it happened because you stayed home.”
To McAuliffe and many other Democrats, the party seems to be at a nadir that greater voter participation can only improve. That has had an effect on the intraparty discussion, as few members of the party now court conservative voters to get reelected.
In 2008, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won the lowest share of votes for a Republican presidential candidate in 50 years. Yet in 2010, 48 House Democrats represented districts whose voters had picked McCain for president over Barack Obama. Today, after two Republican waves and a round of redistricting that favored the GOP, just one Democrat — Rep. Collin C. Peterson (Minn.) — represents a district that voted for McCain.
That has left Democrats playing offense, and it has put the party in sync with the opposition. Like the Republicans of 2009, Democrats find the protest movement making it easier to recruit candidates. Like those Republicans, they see a president creating the conditions for a backlash election — one that is likelier if the party locks into opposition mode.
“President Trump is a better recruitment tool for us than he is the central campaign issue. We’ve talked to over 40 people already, many of whom are coming forward out of concern for him,” Rep. Ben Ray Luján (N.M.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told reporters in Baltimore on Thursday during a roundtable about the party’s chances of taking the House. “At the end of the day, 2018 will be more a referendum on what it is the House Republicans are going to allow him to do.”
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee who ran the DCCC during its high watermark in 2008 and its wipeout in 2010, said that a similar narrative would play out in his races.
“In the Senate, we’ve got a lot of senators up for reelection in states that Trump won, but people are focusing on the fact that Senate Democrats are the last line of defense between Donald Trump and a lot of bad things,” Van Hollen said. “So, they are motivated at the grass-roots level to help.”
One model for that strategy predates the tea party and Occupy Wall Street. In 2005 and 2006, Democrats recovered with surprising speed from a national defeat, but the base had only two real litmus tests. It demanded that candidates oppose the Iraq War and that they refuse to work with President George W. Bush on his campaign to partially privatize Social Security. Both the war and the campaign were broadly unpopular by November 2006.
There were primary challenges in that cycle — most notably, the defeat in the Democratic primary of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, who was reelected in Connecticut as an independent. But as in 2017, the party’s base was demanding opposition more than it was demanding specific policies.
From race to race, there are signs that this opposition may work the same way. In January, the DCCC raised $4.1 million online with an average donation of $18. Daily Kos, the blog community that fueled Democratic campaigns in the Bush years, has already aggregated $400,000 in donations for Jon Ossoff, a 29-year-old candidate for the suburban Atlanta House seat being vacated as Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) becomes the new secretary of health and human services.
And without a president in the White House — or anything like a presidential front-runner — progressive groups are focusing more on broad resistance than on a single target. Guy Cecil, who took over the super PAC Priorities USA when it transitioned from a pro-Obama group to a group dedicated to electing Hillary Clinton, said that it had since evolved “from a candidate-centered super PAC to a progressive advocacy organization.”
“There’s not going to be one leader of the Democratic Party for a while,” Cecil said. “There’s not going to be one group that leads the progressive movement. That’s a very good thing. We’re going to keep finding that this resistance is springing up in places we haven’t been looking.”