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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Tea Party of the Left to Punish Traitors Probably Won’t Work

The anti-Trump ferment in so many parts of the country is beginning to generate some serious and sustained activity–including one intra-Democratic-Party disciplinary movement that I’m skeptical of, as I noted at New York:

[A]ccording to Politico, restive progressives have a very particular and entirely understandable goal that has nothing to do with the campaign that just ended:

“’Our big goal is to support primary challenges against those Democrats who negotiate with Donald Trump,’ said the organizer, Waleed Shahid, a veteran of Bernie Sanders’ campaign who is working for a group called AllofUs, launched in September.”

The first question that must be asked about this agenda is whether Trump and his people need or even want Democrats on the other side of a negotiating table. With a solid majority in the House and a two-vote majority in the Senate (buttressed by the absence of the potentially troublesome heretic Mark Kirk of Illinois), it may not be necessary. If Trump and congressional Republican leaders can come to agreement on a budget reconciliation bill to achieve most of their common goals, from a big upper-end tax cut and more money for the Pentagon to the decimation of low-income programs and the disabling of Obamacare, then they probably will not need a single Democratic vote. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski are about the only Republican senators Mitch McConnell would need to worry about, and with Mike Pence breaking tie votes in the Senate, they really don’t matter any more than the Democrats. Yes, all other things being equal, Republicans would prefer securing some Democratic votes for a Trump Supreme Court nominee and an Obamacare replacement plan in order to avoid the messy process of eliminating the Senate filibuster altogether. But it’s not mandatory, and it’s likely that Republicans, fearing midterm House losses in 2018, will want to rush through as much simon-pure conservative legislation as quickly as possible, without screwing around too much with the powerless Democrats.

But it is also possible that Donald Trump personally would like to be able to claim some bipartisan support. The way his cabinet is beginning to shape up, his idea of bipartisanship will probably be the old gibe “Let’s compromise — do it my way.” If down the road Trump has a truly decisive break with congressional Republicans, though, all bets are off. At that point, even the lefty-est of lefty Democrats might support some tactical maneuvering to split the GOP.

So for the time being you have to figure the threat of primarying “traitorous” Democrats is mainly hypothetical and prophylactic. But then the secondary question comes up: Which wavering Democrats are going to be intimidated by a “tea party of the left”?

The obvious targets for either a bipartisan Trump outreach or for disciplinary efforts by progressives are the Democratic senators up for reelection in 2018 who represent states carried by Trump. There are ten of them: Bob Casey (Pennsylvania), Joe Manchin (West Virginia), Bill Nelson (Florida), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Debbie Stabenow (Michigan), Joe Donnelly (Indiana), Tammy Baldwin (Wisconsin), Claire McCaskill (Missouri), Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota), and Jon Tester (Montana). You might imagine some of these states are not reliably Republican in the future, but the flip back to the Democrats won’t be automatic, either, in a midterm election when the turnout dynamics have recently favored Republicans.

Now, Sherrod Brown and Tammy Baldwin and probably Debbie Stabenow are not the sort of Democrats who will be hankering for a way to show Trump voters they’re not all bad, and Bob Casey has his own appeal to white working-class voters that doesn’t necessarily depend on bipartisanship. But the rest of these vulnerable Democratic senators could waver.

And if they do, what exactly is “the tea party of the left” going to do about it? Joe Manchin, for one, would probably pay for left-bent protests against his “centrist” heresies in West Virginia, and would definitely welcome a progressive primary opponent to triangulate against. Heitkamp’s state went for Trump by 36 points; Tester’s, McCaskill’s, and Donnelly’s by 20 points or slightly less. Does anyone think a candidate more progressive or partisan than any of these worthies has a prayer of carrying their states in the immediate future?

At some point, would-be members of a “tea party of the left” need to come to grips with the fact that the “tea party of the right” had more geographical material to work with. Trump carried 30 states. So long as every state has two senators, and particularly if the recent trend toward straight-ticket voting persists, it will be difficult for Democrats to control the Senate. Similarly, it will be difficult for Democrats to control a majority of state governments, and that in turn gives Republicans the upper hand in House redistricting. Given that reality, is the biggest problem Democrats face really spinelessness or friendliness with Wall Street? Or is it the absence of candidates and a message that can broaden not just the Democratic popular vote coalition, but its geographical reach?

In the meantime, Democrats should not be surprised if endangered politicians in Trump country choose to “negotiate” instead of defiantly thumbing their noses at their wayward constituents. A national movement of resistance to Donald Trump and all his works may well be the only moral course of action for progressives. But there will be no-shows on the battlefield when the trumpet sounds.

3 comments on “Tea Party of the Left to Punish Traitors Probably Won’t Work

  1. Peter Wiley on

    The problem is the absence of a message that resonates with the working and middle classes. The message of the election to the Democratic party should be to tack hard in the direction of resolving working- and middle-class economic woes and hold Trump accountable as he fails to do so.

    With this in mind, here’s an broadcast email I got yesterday from Eric Walker, DNC Deputy Communications Director:

    “Over the past few days, Donald Trump has been rolling out the names of some of the people who will be a part of his administration. Leading his transition team is his anti-women, anti-LGBT Vice President-elect Mike Pence. He named Steve Bannon — publisher of the racist, sexist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, white nationalist “news” site Breitbart — as one of his most senior advisors. And his list of cabinet secretaries ranges from the extreme fringe of the Republican party (think Sarah Palin) to Wall Street and oil company CEOs.

    They say you can judge a man by the company he keeps. Well, Peter, this list of future members of the Trump administration means we’ve got our work cut out for us over the next four years. But I have no doubt that if we stay committed to our values and steel ourselves to fight back against everything that’s going to come out of this administration, we can keep Donald Trump from taking our country over the cliff.

    But we’re going to be counting on folks like you more than we ever have before to stand together with us. We were on the right side of history in this election, and we owe it to the future of this country to hold Donald Trump and his allies accountable.””

    Have they not been paying attention at the DNC?

    What Mr. Walker might have written: “Over the past few days, Donald Trump has been assembling a team that’’s clearly incapable of fulfilling his promises to working Americans. It’s hard to imagine that Trump’s campaign was a cynical manipulation of working American’s hopes and fears, but just look at who he wants to put in charge of running the government he promised would unify the nation . . . Working Americans are going to suffer as a result of Trump’s his bait-and-switch attack on American values.””

    • Jack Olson on

      If what you say is true, then how did the Democratic Party in this election cycle fail to offer the message you say was lacking? If they were out of touch with the working and middle classes, why were they?

      • Peter Wiley on

        The short story is that party leaders are too cut off from working- and middle class experience and culture.

        That isolation leads them to make mistakes like those described here: http://adage.com/article/campaign-trail/hillary-clinton-wrong/306676/?spot_im_comment_id=sp_4GrOeURq_306676_c_jhg6yS

        How party leaders they got cut off is a long and complicated story that has yet to be written. Much depends on how one reads history.

        I would start the story in the mid-1970s when congressional democrats fumbled the issue then labeled “deindustrialization” (what would now be called globalization). What was needed was an industrial policy. What we got was the JPTA. Too many congressional democrats of the time felt they could take labor and the working and middle classes for granted while bargains they hoped would protect their positions. That was the beginning of the current end in my view.

        By the early 2000s, too many democratic activists — many of whom have since moved into leadership positions — were of the clubby, careerist, urban sort that I met at a DNC-sponsored communications director training. If I could replay the reactions I got when I introduced myself as being from the Central Pennsylvania “T” my case would be made.


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