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Tough Choices for Democrats: Obstruct or Govern

Angry constituents want members of Congress to step up

Police escort Republican Rep. Tom McClintock through a town hall audience from the Tower Theatre in Roseville, California, on Feb. 4. (Randall Benton/The Sacramento Bee via AP file photo)
Police escort Republican Rep. Tom McClintock through a town hall audience from the Tower Theatre in Roseville, California, on Feb. 4. (Randall Benton/The Sacramento Bee via AP file photo)



It’s now well known in Washington that on Feb. 4, police escorted GOP Rep. Tom McClintock, a fifth-term libertarian whose district stretches from the Sacramento suburbs to Yosemite National Park, out of a town hall meeting full of angry constituents in Roseville, Calif., 30 miles northeast of the state capital. The calls of activists opposed to President Donald Trump rained down: “This is what democracy looks like!”

Less than a week later, activists ambushed another Republican representative also starting his ninth year in Congress, Jason Chaffetz, at a town hall in a high school auditorium in suburban Salt Lake City. “Do your job!” they yelled at the Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman, demanding that he investigate Trump’s conflicts of interest.

The drama continued over the week-long Presidents Day congressional recess. A 7-year-old queried GOP Sen. Tom Cotton, pointedly, about Trump’s plan for a border wall. Other Republicans, like Northern Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, were pilloried for declining to host town halls.

But Republicans aren’t the only ones angry liberals are thrashing. On Jan. 29, activists spurred on by social media posts from the progressive Working Families Party showed up en masse for a spaghetti dinner put on by Sheldon Whitehouse in a Providence middle school auditorium. These events are normally sleepy affairs in liberal Rhode Island, and Whitehouse, who faces re-election for a third Senate term representing the Ocean State next year, is a loyal Democrat. He has maintained a record of voting 95 percent or more of the time with his party on votes that split Republicans and Democrats in his 10 years in Congress.

Still, Whitehouse voted in January to confirm former Kansas GOP Rep. Mike Pompeo as CIA director, and to the activists, that was appeasement. “We are going to hold Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse accountable,” said one, featured in a YouTube video of the rally. Pompeo, the activist argued, subscribes to a worldview that pits Christians against Muslims, believes the National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden should be executed for treason and refuses to condemn Trump’s proposal to kill the families of accused terrorists.

Another protester offered a broader explanation for why liberals should go after Democrats: “It is important even with those like Sen. Whitehouse who are often allies, that we show up and say: ‘We expect you to lead the resistance in Washington.’ ”

In response, Whitehouse backed down. “I will concede right off the bat that I may have been wrong,” he told the crowd. Pressed to go further, Whitehouse pledged to vote no on Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick to run the Education Department; Steve Mnuchin, his Treasury appointee; Rex Tillerson at the State Department; Jeff Sessions at Justice; Scott Pruitt at the EPA; and Andy Puzder, the Labor nominee who later dropped out on his own accord.

That the crowd deemed satisfactory.

Whitehouse defended his change of heart and newfound hard-line stance toward nominees, saying that “some Republicans will rue the day they voted for some of these characters once the conflicts of interest start to become apparent.”

But Whitehouse might disappoint those who wish for blanket opposition: He says he will continue to work with Republicans on issues he believes are important, including infrastructure, cybersecurity and opioid addiction — a sentiment echoed by many other Democratic lawmakers.

“I think there’s a lot of areas where the regular work of the Senate in the ordinary course is simply going to move forward and is going to continue to go forward because it’s just common-sense stuff,” he says.

Democratic tea party?

Democrats in Congress are hopeful that a new tea party is emerging, a liberal one that will renew their electoral prospects in 2018. But perhaps they should be wary: The tea party was about more than bringing Republicans back to power. It was also about transforming the Republican Party into a more conservative entity. It was at times self-destructive, leaving the party deeply divided and costing it winnable elections. And it also contributed greatly to increased partisanship and dysfunction in Washington.

Had Donald Trump not emerged as the GOP’s savior in 2016, the tea party uprising might now be a historical footnote.

On the ground, at the grass roots, liberals surely would prefer a Democratic majority, but they — like their conservative forbearers — are inspired by something more visceral. That is revulsion at Trump and rage at Republicans who stonewalled President Barack Obama for the bulk of his time in office.

That rage may or may not help Democrats win two Novembers from now. More certain, it will change the Democratic Party and sustain, or even worsen, the dysfunction in the Capitol.

Democratic senators and representatives are torn about how to proceed. Many believe that they, as the advocates of good government, must compromise if Donald Trump comes at them with a deal they can live with on, say, a big infrastructure plan.

“We’re going to be fighting about a lot, but we can’t have a stalemated trench warfare forever on everything,” says Richard Blumenthal, a Democratic senator from Connecticut. “I think it’d be irresponsible to simply say, ‘No, we’ll never work together on anything forever and ever.’ ”

In late November, when CQ Roll Call polled Democratic congressional staffers on whether they were more inclined to try to block the Republican agenda or find areas of compromise, 51 percent said block it, compared to 39 percent willing to cut deals. The pain of the election was still acute.

Asked the same question in late February, despite the protest movement, the Democrats’ aides were less combative: 48 percent said block the GOP agenda, 43 percent were willing to compromise.

Most Democratic senators voted for four of the first five Trump Cabinet nominees to reach the floor, starting with Defense Secretary James Mattis on Jan. 20 and ending with Labor Secretary Elaine Chao on Jan. 31. Fourteen voted for Pompeo, with 30 opposed, on Jan. 23.

But since, they’ve voted nearly unanimously in opposition to DeVos, Mnuchin, Sessions, Pruitt, Tom Price, Trump’s choice for Health and Human Services secretary, and Mick Mulvaney, the new director of the Office of Management and Budget. Never has a president faced such determined opposition. Already, Democratic senators have cast 497 nays on Trump nominees, more than George W. Bush faced, against his Cabinet nominees, during his entire two terms.

Two months into the new congressional session, on votes that have divided the parties, both Republicans and Democrats, representatives and senators, are in lock-step opposition. In the House, Democrats have remained with their party on 98.3 percent of such votes; Republicans on 99.4 percent. In the Senate, it’s 95.1 percent for the Democrats and 98 percent for Republicans. It’s early, with many votes to come, but those are record levels.

For many of the activists, this is good. It’s making a point about Trump’s controversial campaign, his failure to win the popular vote, and Republicans’ intransigence during the Obama years. And they note that for the Republicans, ramping up the partisanship is a strategy that worked: the GOP now controls the White House and both branches of Congress.

Surely, liberal activists expect, the pendulum will swing back, this time with Democrats holding the momentum.

Considering the consequences

But some Democrats aren’t sure that it will work for them like it worked for the Republicans, or that it’s worth the pain more gridlock will inflict on the country.

“We’ve seen this movie before and it did not end well the last time and it will not end any better this time” for the country, says William Galston, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton who co-founded the group No Labels in an effort to get Democrats and Republicans to work together.

If Democrats adopt a policy of noncooperation, even on issues where compromise is possible, it will be a return of the partisan paralysis that marked the four years beginning with the Republican takeover of the House and ending with the GOP Senate victory of 2014, when Congress enacted fewer new laws than at any time in modern history.

“I’m referring to the fact that public policy in many areas stagnated at a time when the American people wanted change and the country needed change,” Galston said.

With their 48 Senate votes, Democrats and their independent allies can now ensure the stagnation continues, hoping it will salve their consciences about fighting Trump and keep their base engaged. Or they can seek the kind of deals that emerged during a brief break in the partisanship after the GOP seized control of both chambers in 2015.

That year, after years of trying and failing, Congress finally replaced a broken payment system for doctors who serve Medicare patients. It also revised the landmark No Child Left Behind law, passed a new highway bill, gave Obama fast-track trade negotiating authority, cemented popular tax breaks, finally responded to the growing plague of cyberattacks on corporate America and scaled back domestic surveillance powers in the 2001 Patriot Act.

The détente receded, as is typical, during the 2016 election year and Democrats now have a choice about whether to seek its restoration or to fight Trump and the Republicans at every turn.

They’ll have to ignore — or somehow placate — the activists to choose the former.

From the bottom

The most successful citizen-led protests are those that emerge organically. That was the conclusion of a Congressional Management Foundation report released last month. The foundation, a private nonprofit group founded by former congressional aides in 1977 to help Congress manage its workload, based its findings on surveys of Capitol Hill staffers.

And that seems the case here. Activists are making their views impossible to ignore. Last month, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York told fellow Democrats that the Capitol switchboard was handling 1.5 million calls a day in the run-up to the Senate vote on DeVos’ nomination to run the Education Department. That was double the call volume during the opening days of Obama’s second term, says Matt House, a Schumer spokesman.

At the same time, protesters have swarmed town halls and sought guidance from activist groups. Former House Democratic aides, including Angel Padilla, who worked for Illinois’ Luis V. Gutiérrez; Ezra Levin, a former staffer for Lloyd Doggett of Texas; and Indivar Dutta-Gupta, who was on the Ways and Means Committee staff for former Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington, put together an “Indivisible Guide” to help activists organize., the liberal group that formed to combat Bill Clinton’s impeachment, has held conference calls on Sundays to offer guidance.

But at this stage the protests aren’t strategic. In other words, they aren’t pinpointing House Republicans in districts that Democrats could win in 2018. Rather, they’re making their biggest impact in districts normally considered safely Republican, like Chaffetz’s or McClintock’s. And their uncompromising approach could hurt Democrats in swing states and districts.

Indeed, with Democrats facing nearly insurmountable odds in taking back the Senate, given the seats up in 2018, their best shot to regain some power is a House win. To get it, they’ll need to win congressional districts they lost in the 2010 and 2014 elections in places such as upstate New York and rural North Carolina, where moderate Democrats like Mike McIntyre and Heath Shuler once held seats. They also need to hold on to the handful of districts now represented by centrist Democrats such as Jim Costa in California’s Central Valley.

Costa says he’s getting mixed messages from his constituents on whether to cooperate with or oppose Trump. Many supporters of the Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who made an insurgent run for the Democratic presidential nomination last year, “feel that the election was stolen from us,” Costa says. Other constituents, he says, think “if there are some things we can help the valley with on infrastructure, on water and transportation, they expect me to try to help my constituents and solve problems.”

Costa says he’s inclined to work with Trump if he can, and he’s among a small group of Democrats to vote with congressional Republicans on using the Congressional Review Act to rescind Obama administration regulations. “I think we need to have regulatory relief and I’m calling them as I see them as they impact my district,” he says.

Another Democrat who says he’s looking for ways to work with Trump is freshman Josh Gottheimer, who ousted seven-term Republican Scott Garrett last November in a Republican-leaning district in northern New Jersey.

Gottheimer helped organize a Feb. 8 letter to Trump from the members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus asking the president for a meeting “to discuss areas where we can work together, including tax reform and infrastructure investment.”

“The vast majority of feedback I’m getting is, ‘Stand up when it makes sense,’” he says, but where there’s opportunity to work with Trump “then sit down and actually work together.”

Gottheimer says he’s heard from some angry constituents about his approach but that most appreciate that he’s “calling balls and strikes.”

On a recent MoveOn call, experienced organizers educated activists on ways to stage demonstrations and where to find websites with information about upcoming protests. But they never mentioned specific representatives or senators who might be persuadable, or who face tough re-election races.

Keeping up the heat

Rather, the point seemed to be to keep the outrage going.

One of the organizers, Georgia Hollister Isman, discussed the Whitehouse protest. “The strategy for mostly good Democrats is really important,” she said. “The political reality on the ground has changed.” A year ago, she explained, Whitehouse might have gotten away with his vote for Pompeo. “He could have voted for someone like that and gotten a few angry phone calls, but now the reality is different.”

Whitehouse is not the only Democrat in the activists’ cross hairs. Protesters have gathered outside Schumer’s Brooklyn home, calling him “a chicken” for not doing enough to stop Trump.

“He needs to make it impossible for them to get anything done,” Ali Adler, a 28-year-old Brooklyn woman, told an NBC News reporter.

Liberals even attacked one of their heroines, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, after she voted in the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee to recommend the nomination of Ben Carson to run the Housing and Urban Development Department.

Warren said Carson, the former Johns Hopkins University brain surgeon who ran for president last year, had given her satisfactory answers to her questions about managing public housing and combating housing discrimination.

“People are right to be skeptical; I am,” she said. “But a man who makes written promises gives us a toehold on accountability.”

Still when Carson’s nomination was considered on the Senate floor on March 2, Warren voted nay.

And there are indications that the burgeoning protest movement could mean primary challenges for Democrats deemed insufficiently resistant to Trump. Liberal activists have plenty of energy, but they risk using it in a way that makes Democrats’ task of winning back the House and Senate harder.

Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill says she fears a primary challenger. Appearing on a St. Louis radio show on Feb. 16, she said that anti-Trump protesters have targeted her.

McCaskill could be vulnerable in a primary, and if Missouri Democrats put up a more liberal candidate, it could make it more difficult for Democrats to hold their ground in the Senate in 2018. Missouri is trending Republican and went to Trump by 19 percentage points in November.

Even if McCaskill survives a primary, it could damage her in the general election. In 2012, McCaskill won a second term with ease, but only after Republicans selected a tea party-backed candidate, then-GOP Rep. Todd Akin, who muffed his chances by explaining his opposition to abortion rights, even in cases of rape, by saying that women’s bodies blocked pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape.”

McCaskill says liberal activists don’t think she’s been tough enough on Trump’s Cabinet nominees even though the only controversial appointee she has supported so far are Pompeo, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

“Many of those people are very impatient with me because they don’t think I’m pure,” she said on The Mark Reardon Show. Her support for some Trump Cabinet picks is “not good enough for some of these folks who want me to be just against Trump everywhere,” she said.

Democratic infighting has emerged in Massachusetts as well. In January, Brianna Wu, a 39-year-old video game developer, announced that she would challenge Rep. Stephen F. Lynch, who represents downtown Boston, the Irish working class enclave of South Boston and suburbs to the south.

Lynch has never had a tough race since winning a special election in 2001, and he crushed a progressive primary challenger in 2010 after voting against that year’s health care law. But Wu notes that Lynch thinks Democrats should downplay efforts to combat climate change, and has supported tighter vetting of refugees. “I did not decide to run until Donald Trump won,” says Wu. “I looked at who is going to fight for us the least and that’s very clearly Stephen Lynch. There are easier races to win, but this is about doing the right thing.”

For his part, Lynch says he’s willing to work with Trump if Democrats can cut a deal that benefits his blue-collar constituents. “If [Trump] ever veered towards the center and started to make some progress, or reached out to Democrats on the issue of tax reform or infrastructure, I would be willing to work with the administration on that.”

The Indivisible Guide’s first chapter is titled: “How Grassroots Advocacy Worked to Stop Obama.” It explains how the tea party movement of 2010 did it, in part, by rejecting concessions to Obama and congressional Democrats and targeting “weak Republicans.”

Of course, it’s easy to forget now that the tea party cost Republicans a chance to win the Senate in 2010. Republicans picked up six seats that year, leaving Democrats with a narrow majority of 51 with two like-minded independents. Republicans lost at least two winnable races in Delaware and Nevada, where tea party activists defeated moderate opponents in the Republican primary.

In the 2012 election, Republicans missed opportunities in Missouri and Indiana when they put up tea party candidates.

Tea party leaders say they have no regrets. Part of their mission was to enforce greater ideological purity in Congress. “We went after Republicans as well as Democrats,” says Sal Russo, one of the founders of Tea Party Express and a California political consultant. He points to the Delaware race where a tea party-backed candidate, Christine O’Donnell, defeated longtime Rep. Michael N. Castle, a moderate, in the Republican Senate primary, only to then lose to Democrat Chris Coons. “We knew Castle was going to have a much better chance of winning but Castle was a constant thorn in conservative plans in the House.”

There were benefits for the tea party in taking the long view, adds Vanessa Williamson, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and author of a book on the tea party movement.

“Putting up candidates and sometimes overshooting pays off in the sense that they convinced every Republican they were in danger of being primaried,” she says.

That, in turn, enforced discipline in the GOP ranks. It meant that there would be no “grand bargain” on the deficit with Obama, that Republicans would push the country to the brink of default in 2011 in order to win spending cuts, and would force a 16-day shutdown in 2013 to protest the Affordable Care Act. And it ultimately led to the resignation of GOP Speaker John A. Boehner in 2015, after the Ohioan lost faith with the GOP class of 2010 over how best to go after funding for Planned Parenthood, the women’s health care organization that provides abortions. At the time, it seemed like the Republican Party was on the verge of a schism.

For the activists, then and now, it’s less about electoral strategy and more about emotion.

On the MoveOn call on Feb. 12, a protest leader, Jennifer Epps-Addison of the Center for Popular Democracy, urged activists to help persuade corporations that are working with the Trump administration to stop. She pointed to the decision, earlier that month, of Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick to step down from an economic advisory board as an example of how they could do it.

After activists protested Kalanick’s involvement in Trump’s Economic Advisory Council, thousands of Uber users deleted the livery service’s app from their smartphones.

“We need to hold accountable every single one of Trump’s co-conspirators,” Epps-Addison said. “We need to turn up the volume and turn up the heat.” She equated Trump’s corporate advisers with the companies that benefited from the South African apartheid regime, or the Nazis in Germany. “They are no different,” she said.

No one disputed the point.

Facing a choice

For Democrats in Congress, this presents a quandary. They are the party of government. If they play a role in furthering governing’s demise by refusing to work with Trump at all, how will it play with voters?

While almost all Democrats shy away from the over-the-top rhetoric of these activists, some believe that they can use the protests and the anger, tied with a populist economic message, to motivate the base.

“I don’t think we’re risking anything right now,” says Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat and co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “I don’t think we should be alarmist — ‘Oh, are we going too far one way and we’re going to lose the base.’ The midterms are the critical elections. We’ve tried to win those in a certain way and we haven’t won them and I think going in a different direction isn’t necessarily a bad thing right now.”

But even if the activists sustain their energy until the 2018 election, it might not deliver the House for the Democrats.

Indeed, it’s possible that the tea party model might not work, says Brookings’ Galston: “Polarization can have the effect of making you stronger where you are already strong and weakening you where you are not strong enough.”

What the 2016 election showed is that Democrats are weak in the exurbs and the Rust Belt and rural America, where they have been losing ground since 2010.

It’s obvious that the protest movement is strong in the cities where Democrats are already strong. It’s not clear how the protests are playing outside of them.

Republicans aren’t acting worried. They are framing the activism as pure AstroTurf, ginned up by liberal groups, and even paid for by them. They want voters who supported Trump, or who are ambivalent about him, to ignore the noise.

They’ve also complained that the protesters, with their flood of calls, have made it difficult for constituents who need help dealing with government agencies to get through.

The cost to good governance, they are arguing, goes beyond Democrats’ efforts to block the Trump agenda in Congress. It also affects the veteran or the senior citizen who is having trouble collecting his benefits.

Surely, they will make a case, too, if Democrats block an infrastructure bill or a tax overhaul that would reduce rates for the middle class.

At the same time, GOP lawmakers have made some concessions to the protests. The House GOP rescinded its plan to neuter a House ethics office in January after angry constituents called their offices. Congressional Republicans lobbied Trump successfully to exempt the Veterans Affairs Department and Agriculture Department seasonal firefighters from his federal hiring freeze. More significantly, they have backed off their plan to quickly repeal the health care law.

Democratic lawmakers are stressing such wins, even as they’re trying to dampen expectations. They will lose, a lot, they’re telling activists. They simply don’t have the votes to stop Trump’s nominees. It’s unlikely they can block his Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch, for example, or prevent changes to the health care law if Republicans alter it using the budget reconciliation process.

At the same time, they’re urging activists to keep at it.

Pressed by an activist at a February telephone town hall meeting about whether Democrats had a strategy to combat Trump, Massachusetts Rep. Niki Tsongas — whose late husband, Paul, a former senator, was known for his bipartisan approach — sympathizes with the new resistance. “We have to use all the tools in our Democratic toolbox,” she said, adding that Democrats need to keep their eyes on the prize, the 2018 election. Democrats’ focus, she said, “will be on regaining the House, and retaining as many members as possible in the Senate.”

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