Democrats seek to con­vert ac­tivism into a move­ment

Restive, ag­gres­sive base presents set of chal­lenges


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 cen­ter­left 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 (DConn.), 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 and a lot of bad things,” Van Hollen said. “So, they are mo­ti­vated at the grass-roots level to help.”

model for that strat­egy pre­dates the tea party and Oc­cupy Wall Street. In 2005 and 2006, Democrats re­cov­ered with surTrump pris­ing 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 29One 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.”


Thou­sands pack Fayet­teville Street dur­ing the annual “His­toric Thou­sands on Jones Street” march on Satur­day in Raleigh, N.C.

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