Grass-roots movements can be the life and death of political leaders.
It’s a well-worn story now about how John A. Boehner, then House minority leader, joined a rising star in his caucus, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, in April 2009 for one of the first major tea party protests in the California Republican’s home town of Bakersfield.
A little more than six years later, after they surfed that wave into power, the movement consumed both of them. Boehner was driven out of the House speaker’s office and McCarthy’s expected succession fell apart, leaving him stuck at the rank of majority leader.
Democrats are well aware of that history as they try to tap the energy of the roiling liberal activists who have staged rallies and marches in the first three weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency.
What if they can fuse these protesters, many of whom have never been politically active, into the liberal firmament? What if a new tea party is arising, with the energy and enthusiasm to bring out new voters and make a real difference at the polls, starting with the 2018 midterm elections?
The women’s marches that brought millions onto streets across the country the day after Trump’s inauguration — spurred organically through social media — opened Democratic leaders’ eyes to the possibilities.
With a 10-day recess beginning next weekend, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has instructed her members to hold a “day of action” in their districts, including town halls focused on saving the Affordable Care Act. The following weekend, Democratic senators and House members will hold protests across the country, hoping to link arms with local activists who have already marched against Trump.
“It was important to us to make sure that we reach out to everyone we could, to visit with them, to keep them engaged, to engage those that maybe aren’t engaged,” Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told reporters at a Democratic retreat in Baltimore that ended Friday. The trick is to keep them aiming their fire at Republicans and Trump, not turning it into a circular firing squad targeting fellow Democrats.
“Now we want people to run for office, to volunteer and to vote,” Luján added.
It’s too early to tell which direction this movement will take, but there are some similarities to the early days of the conservative tea party.
In early 2009, as unemployment approached 10 percent and the home mortgage industry collapsed, the tea party emerged in reaction to the Wall Street bailout. It grew throughout the summer of 2009 as the Obama administration and congressional Democrats pushed toward passage of the Affordable Care Act.
Many of the protesters were newly engaged, politically conservative but not active with their local GOP and often registered as independents. Their initial fury seemed directed exclusively at Democrats, given that they controlled all the levers of power in Washington at the time; the protesters famously provoked raucous showdowns at Democratic town halls over the August 2009 recess.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s first brush with the anti-Trump liberal movement came in a similar fashion to Boehner and McCarthy’s Bakersfield foray in 2009. Originally slated to deliver a brief speech at the women’s march in New York, Schumer instead spent 4 1/2 hours on the streets there, talking to people he had never met. By his estimate, 20 percent of them did not vote in November.
That, however, is where Schumer must surely hope the similarities end.
By the spring and summer of 2010, the tea party rage shifted its direction toward Republican primary politics. One incumbent GOP senator lost his primary, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) defeated the Kentucky establishment favorite, and three other insurgents knocked off other seasoned Republicans in Senate primaries (only to then lose in general elections).
One force that helped the tea party grow was a collection of Washington-based groups with some wealthy donors, notably the Koch-funded Americans For Prosperity, who positioned themselves as the self-declared leaders of the movement. For the next few years, they funded challenges to Republican incumbents, sparking a civil war that ran all the way through the 2016 GOP presidential primaries.
Boehner could never match the rhetorical ferocity of the movement. He was perpetually caught in a trap of overpromising and under-delivering. Republicans never repealed Obamacare, as they derisively called the ACA, and they could not stop then-President Obama’s executive orders on immigration. Boehner resigned in October 2015.
Democrats want and need parallel outside groups to inject money and organization into their grass roots. There are signs it is happening: The thousands of activists who protested at a series of raucous town halls hosted by Republican congressmen over the past week were urged to action in part by sophisticated publicity campaigns run by such professional liberal enterprises as the Indivisible Guide, a blueprint for lobbying Congress written by former congressional staffers, and Planned Parenthood Action.
What is less clear is whether such energy and resources will remain united with Democratic leaders — or will be turned on them, as happened with the tea party and the Republican establishment, if the activist base grows frustrated with the pace of progress.
There have been some signs of liberal disgruntlement toward Democratic leaders. Pelosi and Schumer (D-N.Y.) were jeered by some in a crowd of more than 1,000 that showed up at the Supreme Court two weeks ago to protest Trump’s executive order travel ban. Marchers showed up outside Schumer’s home in Brooklyn, demanding he “filibuster everything” and complaining that he supported Trump’s Cabinet members involved in national security.
But there are two key differences between the conservative and liberal movements: their funding, and their origins. Some anti-establishment liberal groups have feuded with leaders, but they are poorly funded compared with their conservative counterparts. And the tea party came of age in reaction not only to Obama but, before that, to what the movement considered a betrayal by George W. Bush’s White House and a majority of congressional Republicans when they supported the 2008 Wall Street bailout.
There is no similar original sin for Democrats, as the liberal protests have grown as a reaction to Trump, not some failing by Schumer and Pelosi.
Schumer remains unconcerned about the few protesters who are angry at Democratic leaders. “I think the energy’s terrific. Do some of them throw some brickbats and things? Sure, it doesn’t bother me,” Schumer said in a recent interview.
How the liberal activists respond to early defeats may be the next sign of which direction the movement takes. Their demand that Schumer block Trump’s Cabinet is impossible to satisfy, because a simple majority can confirm these picks. All Schumer can do is drag out the debate, which he has done to an unprecedented degree.
The stakes will be even higher for the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch, whose lifetime appointment still requires a 60-vote supermajority to reach a final confirmation vote. A Trump victory on Gorsuch might deflate the liberal passion, and some think that was the main ingredient missing for Democrats in 2016.
“We just didn’t have the emotional connection,” Pelosi told reporters in Baltimore. “He had the emotional connection.”