Column

Democrats are now the party of ‘no.’ Is that enough to win back the country?

After three months wandering in a post-election wilderness, Democrats in Washington are coalescing around a new mission, courtesy of President Trump: “Resist.” That’s the one-word slogan progressives began using after Trump’s election, but even establishment Democrats have begun to take it up.

“Where we can engage, we certainly will,” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said last week. But if cooperation is fruitless, she added, “We must stand our ground — we must resist.”

Democrats in Congress began the year less defiant, with a more tentative, case-by-case approach to an untested new president. They were ready to work with Trump, they said, if he met them halfway. Democratic senators confirmed a few of Trump’s Cabinet nominees without much fuss.

Then their base erupted.

Thousands of pink-hatted demonstrators poured into the streets to renounce the president and all his works. Democratic senators’ switchboards lit up with demands that they stop voting for Trump’s nominees. Outside the Capitol, demonstrators crashed a speech by the Senate Democratic leader, Charles E. Schumer of New York, chanting “Do your job.” In Brooklyn, demonstrators gathered outside Schumer’s home, chanting “Resist or resign.”

Last week, Democrats showed they had heard the message. They walked out of committee hearings to advance Cabinet nominees, and Schumer threatened a possible filibuster against the Supreme Court nomination of Neil Gorsuch. That takes care of the Democrats’ immediate problem: They’re restyling themselves in Congress as the party of no.

It won’t stop Cabinet nominations from moving forward; there are 52 Republicans in the Senate, and only 50 are needed for confirmation. But it will make it difficult for the GOP to advance much in the way of new legislation, such as a replacement for President Obama’s healthcare plan; that would require 60 votes.

And Democratic strategists say there’s no political downside to being obstructionist. “It didn’t stop Republicans from winning in 2016,” former Bill Clinton advisor Stanley Greenberg noted.

“Resist” is simple, punchy and clear — but it’s only the beginning of a strategy to revive the Democrats’ fortunes. It’s not enough to win the real prize, which is to regain a majority in the House or the Senate two years from now.

That’s a daunting challenge. Democrats need to win another 24 seats to take back the House, no easy job when gerrymandering has turned many districts into single-party strongholds. The Senate looks even more difficult, because an unusually high number of Democrats are up for reelection, 10 of them in states Trump won.

Still, there’s historical precedent on the Democrats’ side: The party that wins the White House usually suffers reverses in the congressional election that comes two years later. That’s what happened to the Democrats in 2010, after President Obama passed his healthcare plan.

If Democrats have a larger strategy, so far it boils down to this: Make the 2018 election a referendum on Trump, whose job approval is already slightly lower than it was on Inauguration Day.

“You have to assume this is 2010 in reverse,” said Greenberg, who’s advising House Democrats. “The Republicans succeeded in 2010 because they nationalized the election around Obama and Obamacare. The 2018 election will be about Donald Trump, and that changes everything.”

One more factor that’s buoying Democrats’ hopes: the enthusiasm of the anti-Trump demonstrators who have poured into the streets in recent weeks.

“We have a well-known problem with turnout in congressional elections,” said Guy Cecil, another Democratic strategist. “But there’s already a lot of energy out there. We need to find a way to harness it.”

Already, the Democrats’ House campaign committee has released a list of 59 Republican-held districts it will target in the midterm, many in suburban areas that Trump lost to Hillary Clinton last year. In Southern California, one example is Rep. Ed Royce’s district east of Los Angeles, which Clinton won by almost nine percentage points.

But one challenge still bedevils the Democrats: coming up with a single, clear message about what their priorities are —  beyond rejecting Trump.

At the moment, the party doesn’t even have a chairman, and the race for that job has reopened old divisions. Last week, former Vice President Joe Biden endorsed former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who is widely seen as the candidate of Obama and Clinton loyalists. Bernie Sanders, who backs Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), responded with a tart statement: “Do we stay with a failed status quo approach or do we go forward with a fundamental restructuring?”

“We need to talk about a vision for the country —  the whole country, not just a confederation of demographic groups,” Cecil said. “There are going to be a thousand fights available. The fight needs to be focused, it needs to be consistent, and it needs to be electoral.”

And yet, he conceded, “Our success will depend on whether Donald Trump is a popular president.”

The most important figure in the Democratic Party right now may be Trump. He’s a unifying figure, and they’re hoping his flaws will lead them to victory in the next election. But then, that’s what they thought in 2016.

doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

Twitter: @doylemcmanus

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
80°