The Democratic elite gathered in Phoenix, Arizona on January 14 for the first of several forums to debate the future direction of the party and its response to the unprecedented threat of the Trump presidency.
Opening the event, interim Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairwoman Donna Brazile told the gathered luminaries: “It’s our job to stop them [the Republicans] dragging us backwards…Donald J Trump wants to build a cabinet full of people who either can’t do the job or don’t know what the job is. We are going to fight those nominations, we are going to hold each and every one of them accountable to the American people.”
Fast forward 17 days and Democratic supporters could be forgiven for thinking the speech was a figment of their imaginations. Four of Trump’s nominees have been confirmed by the Senate so far, with the willing support of Democratic senators. General James Mattis, Defense Secretary, was approved by 47 out of 48 of the Democratic caucus. General John Kelly, Secretary of Homeland Security, by 37, Mike Pompeo, CIA head, by 14, and Nikki Haley, Ambassador to the UN, by 44. Notably Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer voted in favor of all four.
Meanwhile Ben Carson, the president’s pick to head up the Department of Housing and Urban Development, whose own adviser said in November that “his life has not prepared him to be a Cabinet secretary”, has been voted out of committee unanimously by, among others, liberal darling Elizabeth Warren. Rex Tillerson, the putative Secretary of State, whose close ties to the Russian government has alarmed Kremlin critics, saw his confirmation vote expedited after senators voted to limit debate on his nomination to 30 hours, a vote supported by four members of the Democratic caucus.
Democratic Party apologists say these senators’ actions are an exercise in realpolitik. Presidential nominees require a simple majority to pass the chamber, and as the Republicans control 52 votes, any act of defiance would prove futile as long as the GOP votes as one. Democratic senators in red and purple states, such as the four who supported the Tillerson cloture motion, may as well wave on his appointees and hope their bipartisanship is rewarded by Trump voters when its comes to their own elections.
Yet no act of defiance is truly futile, and no act of realpolitik is without its costs. Opposition to the President, however symbolic, is demanded at every level – from the grassroots up to the Senate chamber. This is not the usual Washington chess game. Trump’s administration is waging an ‘either-you’re-with-us-or-you’re-against-us’ campaign against the political establishment, the media, and foreign nations. Blue senators that find themselves tagged with Trump will not get far. Democratic voters disapprove of Trump by five to one, meaning any voters they pick up from the right will cost them some from the left.
Furthermore, the excuses these senators make for their collusion ring hollow, and can only enrage those on the left desperate to see some leadership from their representatives. Angus King, the independent senator from Maine, who caucuses with the Democrats and voted for the Tillerson cloture, stated on his website that he did so despite harboring “concerns regarding Mr. Tillerson’s past connections to Russia, as well as some activities that occurred at ExxonMobil during his tenure.”
King thinks Tillerson was too pally with Putin, the foreign autocrat whose government aggressively intervened in the presidential election, but voted for him anyway? Let’s see how that plays with left voters in 2018.
For his part, Senator Schumer is already feeling the sharp end of the stick. Protesters plan a demonstration outside his New York office this Tuesday.
Senators clinging to the hope that they can gain leverage over Trump by holding fire on his nominees are also deluding themselves. This is a president who does not listen to his political friends, let alone his enemies. Consider the disastrous rolling out of the refugee ban, which wasn’t made available to homeland security staff until the day it was introduced, and was drafted outside the standard interagency channels that would have allowed the relevant departments to provide operational guidance.
And if his political career thus far did not furnish ample evidence of his intransigence to the doubters, there’s the following insight into his negotiating approach from The Art of the Deal, his 1987 bestseller:
“My style of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward. I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I’m after.”
To the president, negotiation is a zero-sum game: if he’s not winning, he’s losing. The idea of trading concessions with opponents is an entirely alien concept.
Democrats will not be able to barter or bargain with this president. The only deal they’ll get from the White House is a raw one. In light of this, they’d better serve the swelling ranks of the Anti-Trump movement by taking a united stand against his nominees, and the dark agenda they promise for America.