On Tuesday, Chuck Schumer gave his first speech as the Democrats’ leader in the Senate and then appeared on Rachel Maddow’s show last night. His remarks about how the Democrats plan to oppose President Trump make for quite a contrast with what the Republicans did eight years ago, and it’s an important point that must not be lost on people.
Eight years ago, on the night of Barack Obama’s inauguration, key Republicans gathered in an expense-account steakhouse just off Pennsylvania Avenue and committed themselves to a course of action: All opposition, all the time, on everything. Robert Draper broke the story in his book Do Not Ask What Good We Do, which I reviewed back in 2012. The money quote was from Paul Ryan, then the GOP’s leader on fiscal issues, now the speaker of the House: “The only way we’ll succeed is if we’re united. If we tear ourselves apart, we’re finished.”
That meant every Republican had to vote against everything President Obama proposed. That is more or less what happened. Obama got three GOP votes on the stimulus bill, six on Dodd-Frank, just one on health care, and zero on a number of other measures (that’s out of roughly 220 Republicans who were around at that time). And because Obama had been naïve enough to think that he really could lessen partisan rancor, they made him look to casual observers like he was the one breaking his promise to unite the country, and he looked weak and ineffective—and even partisan, because he relied almost wholly on Democratic votes for his major initiatives!
It was a great racket. Act in a totally partisan fashion. Then let the American people see that Washington was still the same old bipartisan slaughterhouse. Then blame Obama for failing to change it!
Now let’s look at what Schumer said Tuesday. He had a lot of tough words for Trump and the Republicans. “We’ll fight him tooth and nail,” he said, “when he appeals to the baser instincts that diminish America and its greatness, instincts that have too often plagued this country and his campaign.” He called out Trump on his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and he used the phrase “hard right” four times to describe the GOP agenda and warn that if that’s what Trump embraced, the Democrats would do everything they could (which he admitted might not be that much) to try and defeat his proposals.
On the Maddow show, promising to “go after” Trump’s nominees: “He said he’s gonna clean the swamp. Who’s his Cabinet? Billionaires, people who own huge businesses, people who have been part of that swamp for a very long time.” He laid out a plan by which Democrats, even in the minority, could tie up Trump’s nominees for the first two months of his presidency. There was plenty of fight in him.
But he did also say this in his floor speech: “If the president-elect proposes legislation that on issues like infrastructure and trade and closing the carried-interest loophole, for instance, we’ll work in good faith to perfect and potentially enact it.” And he followed up on Maddow, again using the example of the carried-interest loophole, saying “I’m not gonna vote against it [just because] he proposes it.”
That’s a very different position than the one the Republicans had against Obama. I know some on the left would call it #TeamSpineless, but it isn’t. In fact, Schumer even went so far as to say to Maddow that the Democrats might try to keep Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court seat vacant. There’s no big quote here, except the word “absolutely” in response to Maddow seeking to confirm that he’d be prepared to hold the seat vacant, but it’s the kind of hardball on this point Democrats almost never play. (Schumer acknowledged that McConnell could get around Democratic opposition by changing the filibuster rule, but said it was his view that some old-line Republicans would resist that and McConnell might not be able to do it.)
Democrats have a needle they have to thread here. They need to be much more aggressively oppositional than they’ve ever been, certainly more than they were under George W. Bush, when enough of them supported his tax cuts, his No Child Left Behind bill, and of course his war, which Bush could claim bipartisan cover for and that Democrats were split over with no clear party message. If ever they needed one clear party message, it’s now.
At the same time, they should not try to become the Republicans. Republicans wreck norms and institutions because they (this new breed of them) don’t believe in those norms or institutions. Democrats do. And they should continue to. It’s like this debate about whether Hillary Clinton should attend the inauguration. I guess I can see the anti- side, but… well, Bill kind of has to go. He’s a former president. Should she make him go alone? That’s a terrible visual, and “sore loser” would be added to her already unfairly long list of deficiencies in the media. But the main point is, while this will be a painful thing for her to watch, she understands the importance of respecting the peaceful transfer of power; it doesn’t mean she has to respect the man the power is being transferred to, and she can find appropriate times and ways to make that clear to the country.
That’s the bottom line. There’s a way to be in opposition that burns the village down with it, and there’s a way to be in opposition that saves the village from the bad guys. The Republicans are the former, the Democrats need to be the latter. In time, voters might even notice.