It is clear now that Democrats learned all the worst lessons from the conduct of their political opponents over the course of the Obama presidency. With unchecked bitterness, Democrats have convinced themselves that the right did little more than obstruct, distract, and indulge their basest impulses for eight years. For this, they were rewarded with total control of all the levers of government in Washington. Thus, anticipating rewards, Democrats have embraced a policy of strategic incoherence with no grander objective than mollifying their base. In the process, they’ve become the very creatures they once claimed to oppose.
“Donald Trump, you didn’t win this election!” declared new Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez. Perhaps anticipating that his explicit contention that Donald Trump is an illegitimate president would yield some uncomfortable parallels, Perez preemptively defended himself. “I don’t care,” he said, “because they don’t give a s— about people.” That’s some defense.
The Democratic rallying cry that Donald Trump has no right to the office he presently occupies is an argument that hardly merits much attention. It consists entirely of the contention that he didn’t really win states no Republican presidential candidate has won in almost 30 years—Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, namely—because Russian intervention into the election might have changed how voters intended to cast their ballots. That’s at least the most lucid of the conspiracy theories rattling around bleaker corners of the liberal hive.
This is an unfalsifiable claim, as are most conspiracy theories. It can neither be proven nor denied. Republicans who do not dispute FBI Director Jim Comey’s assertion that Russia did seek to alter the course of American political events with the aim of helping Donald Trump win the White House are not wrong to note that the chaos Moscow midwifed did not prevent Hillary Clinton from dedicating time and resources to the swing states she lost. To take the Russia conspiracy theory seriously is, however, to miss the point. “Birthers” had no use for evidence to support their contention that Barack Obama was an illegitimate president, and the notion that Donald Trump’s resounding Electoral College victory simply doesn’t count is meant to be felt, not scrutinized.
Not dissimilarly, Senate Democrats are prepared to force Republicans to finish the job Harry Reid began when they compel the GOP to confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court by “nuking” the filibuster. What strategic imperative are Democrats pursuing here? What will they gain from this maneuver? Nothing tangible. For these ill-defined gains, the minority party’s privileges will be sharply curtailed. Barring the unlikely event that they will retake the upper chamber in 2018 (due to the abundance of Democrats up for reelection in states Trump won), they will have to endure their powerlessness for years.
This self-destructive maneuver is, we are told by Senate Democrats, justified by Gorsuch’s “stunning lack of humanity,” as the opportunistic Claire McCaskill put it, or his deference to “legalisms over real lives,” as the incomprehensible Kamala Harris exclaimed. These are parodies of honest criticisms. They are laughable on their face. Moreover, they are rendered hollow when surveying the liberal opinion landscape, whose contributors are more candid about the reason why they have forced Democrats in the upper chamber to hold a gun to their own heads: to “exact revenge” for Merrick Garland.
Democrats are being forced by their base voters to perform a futile, ill-fated gesture of defiance in the face of overwhelming odds—not in spite of those odds but because of them. Democrats in the grassroots demand of their representatives a display of conviction and the will to oppose Donald Trump’s agenda at every turn and no matter the long-term consequences. Sound familiar? It should. The Democrats’ lack of an achievable strategic objective is precisely what they criticized the GOP for during the better part of six years.
Their “uncompromising” base forced Republicans into a strategy of “hostage taking,” wrote Jamelle Bouie in 2013 ahead of the ill-fated government shutdown. “Republicans have a problem,” wrote the Washington Post’s Harold Myerson two years before that. “Their base is killing them.” “They’ve been feeding their base all kinds of crazy for years,” Barack Obama told a rally of true believers in 2016, “primarily for political expedience.” But every time, Republicans were rewarded with more electoral victories, more policy concessions from Democrats, and more power.
Even as Republicans convinced themselves the GOP only ever capitulated in the face of Democratic resistance, Democrats were convincing themselves that Republican recklessness wasn’t a mistake but a brilliant strategy. Now they seek to pantomime it.
So here we are, with Republicans becoming victims of their own success and Democrats prisoners of their failures. It seems, however, that Democrats have caricatured Republicans and are now mimicking the cartoon of the GOP that exists in their minds. Democrats are convinced that they do not have to display moderation or even basic cogency to win back the power they lost in the Obama years, and they might be right. If they’re wrong, though, and if the tactically foolish sacrifices of authority and credibility they’re making today do not pay off, they’ll find themselves in an even more cynical and embittered place than they are in today. And with a more radicalized base nursing a sense of betrayal, the Democratic Party’s time in the wilderness may last a while.