Column

Advice for California Democrats on handling Trump: Remove the leash and let him run

You’re a Democrat. You represent Southern California in Congress. The world has just been turned upside down, and you’re on the bottom. What do you do now?

Rep. Tony Cardenas of Pacoima is chanting. He skipped President Trump’s inauguration and asked constituents to join him in an hour of meditation. “Keep calm and say om,” said the news release.

Rep. Ted Lieu of Torrance jumped on Team Trump’s notion of “alternative facts.” He hung a sign on the door of his House office — “Alternative Fact Free Zone.”

Rep. Adam Schiff of Burbank, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, is doing a lot of cringing. There’s the Russian hacking to consider, along with the possibility of Trump’s rhetoric alienating crucial allies or radicalizing more foes, and Trump’s lack of decorum in speaking before the CIA’s wall of fallen heroes.

“I was appalled to see him stand in front of the wall and spend what seemed like half his time talking about how great his support was and how many times he’s been on the cover of Time magazine,” Schiff said. “For him to go to the CIA and say nobody has more respect for them than he does, when he was comparing them to Nazis not two or three weeks ago, is classic Trumpian doublespeak.”

No argument here. But the reason I stopped by the House was to find out how the Democrats intend to govern, given Republican control of the White House, Senate and House.

None of the three lawmakers sugar-coated the challenge. It’s going to be a tough slog, said Cardenas, whose focus on at-risk kids and immigration policy had an ally in President Obama. The Senate has a shot to block legislation, Schiff said, “but there’s not much we can do in the House,” given the Republican majority.

But the Democrats can’t just sit around either — especially if Washington takes a hatchet to California’s environmental, immigration or healthcare policies.

“My time frame is 24 months,” Lieu said, referring to the midterm elections of 2018. “If we take back the House, we can stop the most extreme elements of the Trump agenda.”

He was heartened by what happened the day after Trump’s inauguration.

“I think the Women’s March changed a lot. I think it showed America and members of Congress that he does not have a mandate,” he said.

Schiff said Trump was “politically shrewd” to make American companies reconsider plans to move jobs outside the country, and he supports Trump’s plan to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Lieu agrees on the trade pact and likes Trump’s pick to head the Department of Veterans Affairs.

And if Trump actually does have a plan to create good jobs rebuilding infrastructure, the congressmen said they’ll go along.

But the consensus among Cardenas, Schiff and Lieu was that Trump made big promises he can’t possibly keep, and that he’ll pay a price for it.

“Over time,”’ said Schiff, “people will grow tired of his shtick.”

Automation, for one thing, will make it impossible to restore manufacturing jobs in the way Trump has suggested. And cheaper, better healthcare for all sounds great, but good luck with that.

“Voters will know in a year and a half,” Lieu said, at which point Trump will have trouble blaming failures on Obama and the midterms will be approaching. Schiff added that Trump could also end up banging heads with GOP leaders.

“We can be a voice, and I have a megaphone,” Cardenas said. California enrolled millions of residents for healthcare coverage under Obamacare, and Cardenas is prepared to fight “bad legislation” and send up a flare the moment any of his constituents lose coverage.

The lawmakers also intend to highlight examples of “alternate facts,” flip-flops and bonkers pronouncements by the commander in chief. Schiff said Trump has already backpedaled on releasing his taxes and making Mexico pay for the president’s proposed border wall. And then there is Trump’s cockamamie claim that he would have won the popular vote if not for 3 million to 5 million immigrants in the country illegally who voted for Hillary Clinton.

Maybe the best strategy is to handle Trump like a Labrador. Remove the leash, stand back and let him run.

Cardenas, who joined his wife and daughter in the Women’s March, said he thinks Supreme Court nominations and the threat to women’s healthcare and the right of choice will keep Trump foes engaged. Lieu said he spoke to the Pacific Palisades Democratic Club and encouraged his audience to support women’s organizations and civil rights groups.

“I also told them to go buy a newspaper, because the assault on a free press is very troubling,” he said.

His job just got harder, Cardenas said, but he has plenty of motivation to keep fighting, especially because race played a role in the presidential campaign.

He’s a United States congressman whose late father was a Mexican immigrant, and when Cardenas looks up from his desk he sees a large painting of his father and grandfather stooped over, working side-by-side in a Stockton potato field in the 1940s.

“Two gentlemen working their tails off with no end in sight, day after day, breaking their backs,” Cardenas said. “Somebody had a camera, they looked up, and they’re smiling.”

On Friday, I saw an inauguration.

On Saturday, I saw an insurrection.

And now it’s back home to California, where I intend to keep an eye on what comes out of Washington. But I make no guarantees that I will be able to keep calm and say om.

Get more of Steve Lopez's work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez

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