Did Al Gore get played? Engaging with Trump brings risk for the left

When Al Gore emerged from his surprise meeting at Trump Tower earlier this week to suggest the president-elect was a good listener and maybe was keeping an open mind on climate change, there was hardly universal relief on the left. But there was a lot of suspicion that Gore had been played.

Within 48 hours, Donald Trump deepened those suspicions, naming Scott Pruitt, the attorney general of Oklahoma and a prominent climate-change skeptic, to run the Environmental Protection Agency.

The editor of the progressive news outlet ThinkProgress, Judd Legum, posted an analysis of Google searches showing that the Gore meeting had gotten substantially more Internet attention than the choice of an official who is a favorite of the oil industry to run the new administration’s environmental policies. 

“These meetings are entertainment to distract you while [Trump] guts Obama’s climate policy,” Legum tweeted.

Prominent Democrats and their allies are navigating uncharted waters as they look for openings to persuade Trump not to dismantle every policy they won under President Obama.

Not since Ronald Reagan assumed office 36 years ago have they had to deal with a president-elect who is both so reviled by their core voters and masterful at using the television cameras to co-opt them — even in those cases where they arrive at his doorstep to school him on why he is wrong.

When they have made overtures, they have been met with sustained — loudly expressed — skepticism from progressives. Many on the left oppose any moves that they see as lending legitimacy to a president-elect they view as a fraud and a danger. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) got a scolding from allies when he suggested that there was room to cooperate with Trump on economic matters. So did Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

The pushback from the left already has shifted the tone on Capitol Hill, with some prominent Democrats voicing a more confrontational approach than they did immediately after the election.

“Democrats and liberals are genuinely trying to figure out what to do with this president-elect,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton. “Some have tried saying, ‘I am going to work with him on issues I believe in.’ But that kind of testing the waters is getting a lot of pushback.”

Among progressive activists, there is both a tactical concern about Trump’s ability to outmaneuver Democrats on specific issues and a broader worry that if their leaders engage Trump as they would any other Republican, they will “normalize” everything that they see as coming along with him: denigration of Mexican immigrants and Muslims, dog whistles to white supremacists, false statements of fact and so on.

“Many on the left are making a moral argument that you can’t disassociate Trump’s economic populism from all the racist and nationalist issues,” Zelizer said. “This is a tension that is not going to go away.”

Some who have been invited to ride the elevator up to Trump’s office in New York have managed to do so without creating a media moment that works in Trump’s favor.

Mayors Bill de Blasio of New York and Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, both Democrats, drew praise from the left for using their time with Trump to confront him on issues of immigration and to warn that many of the nation’s big cities would stand in defiance of his agenda.

Emanuel delivered a letter from 15 mayors imploring Trump to reconsider his plan to put hundreds of thousands of immigrants who were brought illegally to the country as children back at risk of deportation.

That more confrontational approach is necessary, liberal activists insist.

“These conversations with Trump need to make clear that little if anything can be done together unless he rejects in an open fashion the bigoted agenda he ran on,” said Neil Sroka, communications director for Democracy for America, a progressive advocacy group with more than a million members.

Leaders of the American Bridge super PAC, a multi-million-dollar hub of opposition research and media attacks on the GOP, are also warning Democrats against too eagerly engaging.

Even on the issue of infrastructure spending, which they have long supported, Democrats “will have a hard time” collaborating with Trump, warned David Brock, the group’s founder.

“We won’t know how he will benefit from it financially,” Brock said, noting Trump’s refusal to allow the public to see his tax returns.

The call for defiance appears to have had impact.  In the days immediately after the election, incoming Senate Democratic Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York emphasized areas on which Democrats might be able to cooperate with Trump, notably on infrastructure spending. This week, his emphasis appeared to shift to declaring that the party would be offering Trump no assistance in finding a replacement for Obamacare.

If the Republicans dismantle the healthcare law, he told the Washington Post, they will own the problem.

“Democrats will not then step up to the plate… with a half-baked solution that we will partially own,” he said. “It's all theirs." 

As for Gore, look for him, too, to take a sharper tone in his next encounter with Trump — if there is one.

“The first rule of engaging with Trump is don’t be a sucker,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. “Democrats need to remember that Trump will enter office as the most unpopular president in modern history. It shouldn’t be that difficult a landscape to navigate.”

“Trump is trying to position himself as a populist and govern as plutocrat,” he said. “It is up to Democrats to not let him get away with it.”

evan.halper@latimes.com

Follow me: @evanhalper

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