What's a Democrat to Do?

AWalter Head
April 5, 2017

If schadenfreude made a sound, D.C. would be reverberating with it. Democrats and #NeverTrump-ers are gleefully gloating as the Trump administration stumbles and fumbles its way through its first 100 days. With his party unable to coalesce around the “easy” stuff like an Obamacare repeal/replace plan, the White House is reaching out to moderate Democrats in an effort to boost their chances of avoiding a government shutdown at the end of April and for some buy-ins on tax reform. In recent days, White House Legislative Director Marc Short and Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady have held private meetings with House centrist Democrats. But, at this point, it’s hard to see these efforts getting very far. However, can Democrats afford to simply watch the GOP fail, if it also means that the needs, concerns and frustrations of Americans aren’t addressed? 

In the early-1990s, when I first came to D.C., a president of one party reaching out to the opposition party to pass major legislation wasn’t considered a radical concept or a waste of time. In 1993, President Bill Clinton passed NAFTA thanks to overwhelming support of Republicans, even as he lost 156 of his own members. In fact, during the eras of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush and Clinton, about one-third of the opposition party voted – on average – with the White House position. Moreover, the President wasn’t guaranteed support from his own partisans either, as they could only count on getting – on average 70-76 percent of them on their side. Fast forward to the George W. Bush and Barack Obama years and that bipartisanship has all but faded away. George W. Bush got just 25 percent of Democrats – on average – to support the White House position. That dropped to 16 percent of Republicans under Obama. Meanwhile, both got almost universal support from their own members – 82-83 percent. 

President Trump, can, in theory break this log jam. As our first “post-partisan” president, he’s got the ideological flexibility and, as he likes to remind us, the deal making skills possible to make this happen. Yet, since Election Day, he’s all but squandered those advantages with an agenda and attitude that is aimed squarely at his most fervent supporters. 

In talking with those close to House moderates, it’s clear that there’s deep reticence to working with Trump. The most important issue, they say, isn’t the actual issues or policy. It’s trust. Or, more accurately, the lack of it. “The President has done exactly ZERO to prove that he is trustworthy, good on his “word”, or discreet,” said one source. Another wrote: "how the hell can I trust anyone?” over at the White House. 

The second thing these Democrats want is to be part of the process, not a last minute addition when everything else has fallen apart. As Rep. Jim Himes, chairman of the New Democrat Coalition, told POLITICO, “If they really want to get something done … they better leave the ‘picking off’ language behind and start talking about what we would need.” Or, as another Democratic source put it: “What incentive do we have to work with an unpopular President, on bad bills, when we were excluded from the process?” 

In other words, the idea of cross-over support isn’t looking so hot right about now. 

However, Trump’s troubles don’t necessarily lead to success for Democrats. In fact, too many people – including those in the media – are desperate to find a Trump “buyer’s remorse” story that just isn’t there. One reason, it is simply too early. For most normal people, 75 days into the toughest job in the world isn’t enough to time to make a judgement on his future success. More important, this storyline misses an important psychological element: nobody likes to be told that they made a mistake – or that they exhibited bad judgement. You want to be understood for why you made that decision, not mocked for doing it. 

In March, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg sat down with a group of Macomb County, Michigan Trump voters. Obama carried this blue collar bellwether twice, but it went for Trump in 2016. Greenberg’s conclusion: “progressives will only get an audience with these voters if they listen to them and understand why they were desperate for sweeping changes, why they voted for Trump and what message they were sending to the elites about putting ‘us’ and America first. They support Trump for understandable reasons, including concerns about controlling immigration and health care costs, and frustrations with President Obama’s light and elite footprint on the economy. Acknowledging those concerns and the effects of Democratic governance on their lives is the first step to making headway with these voters.” 

Telling voters that Trump doesn’t “give a shit” about them – as DNC Chair Tom Perez has said, does nothing to alleviate – or acknowledge- the real-life concerns that brought voters to Trump in the first place. It also misses the reason why moderate House Democrats were able to win, even as Trump carried their districts. Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos notes that her western Illinois district had the fourth largest swing from Democrat to Republican in 2016. Meanwhile, she carried the district with 60 percent. When I asked her how she was able to carry her district by such a large margin even as Trump won it, she told me: “people have to know you are fighting for them.” In her ads, one was titled “Underdog,” she acknowledges the struggles in her manufacturing-heavy district but says “Illinois still has a lot of fight left” and “is worth fighting for.” She then goes on to list the work she’s done in the district on issues like road/bridge projects and fixing defective water pipes. 

Working with Trump may be a bridge too far for most Democrats, especially since Trump has not built the trust or the good faith with them. It’s also hard for a Democrat to work with a President who has an 84 percent “strong disapproval” rating from Democratic voters. However, a message that is focused solely on “fighting Trump” and none about “fighting for” regular folks will fall flat in those swing districts Democrats are trying to hold/gain in 2018.