It wasn’t that long ago Democrats had the Tea Party’s biggest weaknesses pegged. The GOP’s insurgent wing had developed a bad habit of prioritizing the fight over whatever the fight was supposed to achieve. And because Republicans depended on their activist wing for electoral energy, Republicans were frequently tempted into unwinnable conflicts with no face-saving way out. Well, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, liberal activists are surely making Tea Partiers blush.
Blinded by anxiety and outrage over the GOP’s successes, the Democratic minority in Congress has been led by their activist base voters into committing several unforced errors. If it wasn’t for Donald Trump’s unique ability to alienate swing voters and the Democratic Party’s corresponding successes at the ballot box, elected Democrats would have to reckon with the mistakes they’ve made in heeding their base’s most self-indulgent desires.
The first and possibly the most consequential rake onto which Democrats lunged was a pique-fueled filibuster of Trump’s eminently qualified Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch. He was arguably the first associate justice-designate to face a filibuster, and that dishonor was explicitly designed to force the GOP to make good on their threats to finish the job that Harry Reid started. “You already deployed the ‘nuclear option’ in 2013,” Mitch McConnell advised his colleagues “don’t trigger it again in 2017.” But they did. And so, the filibuster for all judicial appointments, not just lower court nominees, was vaporized.
At no point were Democrats pursuing anything that could be called a strategy here. They had no higher objective than making their base voters happy. Stung by the GOP’s successful effort to block Barack Obama’s final judicial appointment, liberal activists demanded a grand gesture of defiance. Even if the fight was a losing one, the liberal activists wanted to see a fight. Congressional Democrats knew that a filibuster would accomplish little and sacrifice a lot, but it was what their voters asked for.
Today, the costs of accommodating the irrational are coming fully into view. Not only are Democrats utterly without any mechanism to prevent Donald Trump’s second appointment to the Supreme Court, but the party’s activist grassroots seems neither to know that nor to care.
MSNBC’s Chris Matthews nearly chewed the head off his colleague, Steve Kornacki, for merely asking how Democrats could prevent the confirmation of Trump’s nominee. He even managed to convince Senator Kamala Harris to promise that Senate Democrats would play “hardball,” whatever that means, to prevent the seating of a second Trump justice. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent quotes everyone from Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary to Harry Reid’s former deputy chief of staff, all demanding that Democrats “hold the line” and decline to “play by the new rules,” but not one word from any of them on the logistics of how they would go about doing that. The Post’s E.J. Dionne insisted that something has be done to block Trump’s appointment. But what? Though he ominously concedes that “civility” may be an obstacle to achieving his preferred outcome, he is deliberately vague. To be sure, the implication here is an ugly one.
This is not sense or strategy. It is a collective emotional outburst. Democrats cannot reason their voters out of a conclusion that reason did not lead them to in the first place, but they have no choice but to defuse these tensions and resentments before they spill out into the streets.
To do that, Democrats have only two options. The first option is to promise their base that they will fight until there is no more fight left in them. That is, of course, a lie; the fight is already over. Democrats who were promised a showdown will be bitterly resentful toward their elected leaders when one is not forthcoming. The second option is more forthright, and it seems to be the one toward which the Senate’s Democratic leaders are leaning. That would be to let Democrats down gently now. Tell them repeatedly and in no uncertain terms that Trump will get his associate justice on the Supreme Court, and there is no point in pretending that it can be prevented or even delayed.
Democrats who have convinced themselves that Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement represents an existential calamity for the progressive project will never accept the legitimacy of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. Democratic honesty at this juncture will, however, help liberal activists come to grips with their powerlessness. Such a course of action also preemptively debunks the idea that Democratic voters were stabbed in the back by their party’s Quisling establishmentarians. As Republicans know too well, that is a powerful message that fuels primary challenges and helps disreputable operatives separate the earnest from their money.
Democrats could learn a lot from Republicans these days. Republicans know what it is like to sleepwalk into a government shutdown without an exit strategy while sacrificing core elements of their brand in the process. They know how frustrating it can be to have their rights as a minority party curtailed simply for exercising them. They know that having an enthusiastic base of true believers is a double-edged sword; they’re great for winning elections but almost contemptuous of tactics.
If Democrats can convince their voters that “outrage” does not suffice for strategy, they will avoid a trap into which Republicans repeatedly fell—one that cost them a number of winnable races. But that’s a fraught course. After all, the left does seem to be enjoying their primal scream, and no one likes a scold.