Monday, March 13, 2017

The New Party of No

[ed. I'd vote for Elizabeth in a New York minute. She's spent her whole career supporting working families, eviserating Wall Street, and fighting inequality. Expect her to be demonized in Clinton style as soon as mid-term elections roll around.]

On the morning after Election Day, Chuck Schumer’s phone rang. It was Donald Trump. Trump has repeatedly described Schumer as his friend — which, the New York senator was at pains to clarify when we first spoke in mid-February, “isn’t quite true.” There had been the occasional favor; at Schumer’s request, Trump hosted a fund-raiser for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee at Mar-a-Lago in 2008, and Schumer made a cameo on “The Apprentice” in 2006. Beyond that, Schumer told me: “I bump into him at meetings here and there. We never went out to dinner once. We never played golf together. I sort of knew him.”

On election night, Schumer was with Hillary Clinton at the Javits Convention Center in Midtown Manhattan when, around 8 p.m., he saw some troubling exit polls coming out of Florida and North Carolina. They showed that college-educated women in both states — a demographic that everyone assumed would be a lock — were underperforming for Clinton. Schumer called one of her top campaign advisers, who tried to reassure him. “He says, ‘Don’t worry, our firewalls in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and Michigan are strong,’ ” Schumer recalls. “ ‘There’s no way Trump can win.’ ”

Schumer kept up appearances. He tweeted a photo of himself in front of a catering table with Kate McKinnon, who plays Clinton on “Saturday Night Live” (“I got to congratulate Hillary Clinton — oops, wrong Hillary!”), and then took the stage, leading the crowd in a chant of “I believe that she will win!” But by shortly after 11 p.m., Trump had taken Ohio and North Carolina. The probability dashboards on the data-journalism websites had lurched Trumpward, and an unthinkable future was lumbering into view.

Schumer, who was in line to succeed Harry Reid as the top-ranking Democrat in the Senate after Reid’s retirement in December, had spent roughly $8 million of his own campaign funds on Democratic senatorial campaigns in other states in hopes of retaking control of the upper chamber, which the Democrats lost in 2014, and of making himself the majority leader. On his bookshelf he kept a copy of “Master of the Senate,” the historian Robert Caro’s exhaustive chronicle of Lyndon Johnson’s years as the Democratic majority leader, which Caro had inscribed to Schumer: “Whose career I have been following for years with real admiration, so that I have no doubt that he will be a great leader of senators.” But by the early hours of Wednesday it was clear that the Democrats would not take the Senate and that Schumer would not be Lyndon Johnson.

“We’ll work together,” Trump said on the phone call. He said he wanted to repeal the Affordable Care Act — “that A.C.A. is terrible,” he told Schumer — which was an obvious nonstarter for the incoming minority leader. He also said he wanted a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. “I said, ‘Well, a trillion dollars sounds good to me,’ ” Schumer told me. But to get Democrats on board, he warned, three conditions had to be met. “You can’t do it with these tax breaks,” he said. Second, he could not “cut the programs we care about — Medicare, education, scientific research — to pay for this. It’s got to be new spending.” Finally, the bill had to preserve existing environmental and labor protections. “I said, ‘To do that, you’re going to have to get half your party really mad at you.’ ”

Schumer, as he saw it, was calling Trump’s bluff. “Donald Trump ran as an anti-establishment populist — against both the Democratic and Republican establishments,” he told me. Whether or not he had meant it, the Democrats could try to hold him to it. On the several occasions that Trump called Schumer in the weeks after the election, Schumer argued that he could try to govern as a hard-right conservative, but “America is not a hard-right country,” and there would be electoral consequences.

It might not have been the strongest card to play, but Schumer did not have a strong hand. The election in November left the Democrats stripped of power at every level of federal authority. Schumer would now possess the only means they had of exerting even limited influence over Trump’s agenda: a Senate Democratic caucus that, while several seats shy of a majority, was large enough to make life complicated for Senate Republicans. But that could happen only if the Democrats formed a united front — and it was unclear whether they could, or even wanted to.

The 2016 election was not just an electoral crisis for the party but also an existential one, more severe than any that the Democrats had experienced in decades. The party had glided through the campaign with a sense of destiny: In July, Schumer breezily remarked that “For every blue-collar Democrat we will lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two, three moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” Then Hillary Clinton lost to a candidate who revived a strain of nativist, nationalist politics that had been dormant in the Republican Party for at least a generation, and who won in part on the ballots of Barack Obama voters in traditionally Democratic strongholds like Michigan and Wisconsin. “I sleep like a baby,” Chris Murphy, the Democratic senator from Connecticut, told me. “And I can sleep anywhere — on the road, on the floor, in my kid’s bed jammed up against the wall.” But on election night, he says: “It’s so cliché, but I stayed up all night. I was, mentally, totally unprepared. At some level, you do have this — ” he trailed off and was silent for a moment. “You do start to question whether you know the country as well as you thought.”

The Democratic primaries and caucuses, meanwhile, had left the party sharply divided. Clinton lost 22 states to Bernie Sanders, Vermont’s independent and self-identified socialist senator, whose out-of-nowhere challenge had stirred a grass-roots excitement that Clinton’s campaign conspicuously lacked and acrimoniously split the Democratic Party’s centrist and left-leaning contingents — the latter of which viewed the Obama years as a missed opportunity to fight economic inequality, reorient trade policy and rein in Wall Street. Clinton might have won the popular vote, but in a way, this only amplified the confusion: about whether the party needed to transform or simply tinker; whether it needed to move to the right or to the left; whether the voters who were willing to vote for a candidate who said the things Trump said could be won back at all.

These were problems for anyone trying to chart a course for the Democrats, but in a particularly acute way they were problems for Schumer, a politician who was better known as a dealmaker, a student of consensus, than as a pathfinder. As majority leader, the next two years might have been the pinnacle of his career: bill signings, valedictory news conferences (and few politicians visibly delight in news conferences the way Schumer does), the sorts of late-night negotiations that historians like Caro write books about. Instead, Schumer found himself with a job that The Times Union, in Albany, observed two days after the election was “something of a booby prize.” The Democrats, who spent Obama’s presidency railing against Republican obstructionism, would soon be facing a president who, in his stated ambitions to unmake much of Obama’s legacy, was all but inviting them to try the same. Whether this was in Schumer’s​ ​DNA was one question. Whether it was in t​he party’s​ ​was another.

The Democrats have never been a natural opposition party, or a particularly effective one. Republicans from Reagan to the Tea Party broadly believed in reducing government, as the anti-tax activist Grover Norquist famously put it, “to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” Cutting budgets and eliminating programs might require a Republican president and a congressional majority, but lacking this, a disciplined minority party could gum up the works, starving existing initiatives and blocking attempts to expand them.

Democrats, by contrast, have generally been united by a belief in government that tries to do big things, in the manner of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal or Johnson’s Great Society or, later, Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act — a belief that, practically speaking, requires either landslide majorities or a willingness to compromise. Several public-opinion polls in recent years have found that this difference is reflected in the party’s electorates, which have increasingly come to view the political process in starkly different ways. In a 2014 Pew survey, 82 percent of people who identified as “consistently liberal” said they liked politicians who were willing to make compromises; just 32 percent of “consistently conservative” respondents agreed.

The week of Trump’s inauguration, David Brock — the onetime conservative journalist turned liberal gadfly — hosted a private gathering of Democratic luminaries at Turnberry Isle, a golf resort outside Miami. One speaker Brock invited was Ronald Klain, the former chief of staff to Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden, who previously worked for Tom Daschle, the Senate minority leader, in the aftermath of the 1994 midterms, when the Republicans took control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Addressing Brock’s crowd, Klain called for Democrats to embrace what he dubbed the Hundred-Day Fight Club. As Klain learned from working with Daschle, “You have to take on a lot of fights to win any fights,” he told me recently. “When you’re in the minority, you can’t be too choosy. I advocated a strategy of more comprehensive opposition.” But plenty of the Democrats present — among them the Chicago mayor and former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who was sharing the stage with Klain — disagreed. “At the time, there was more of a divide,” Klain told me. “The ‘we gotta pick our spots’ philosophy: ‘He’s a new president — we don’t want to look like McConnell looked in 2009.’ ” Mitch McConnell, the Republican senator from Kentucky who was then the minority leader and is now majority leader, reportedly mapped out a program of near-total resistance shortly before Obama took office — a strategy that Democrats spent subsequent years attacking as cynical and irresponsible. “We’re Democrats,” Klain said. “We like to govern.”

Among the Democrats who appeared to share Klain’s postelection view was Harry Reid, Schumer’s predecessor as minority leader, who would be retiring in December. Reid and Schumer, then Reid’s deputy, were an effective team for years in the Senate, partners in a long-running good-cop-bad-cop act. Schumer was known as a sharp-elbowed partisan during his 18 years in the House of Representatives, but in the Senate he had become an avatar of the gabby aisle-crossing bonhomie that had historically characterized the upper chamber. “You know, I get along,” Schumer told me. “I’m in the gym in the morning, I’m talking with Thune, and Lamar, and Cornyn all the time,” he said, referring to the Republican Senators John Thune, Lamar Alexander and John Cornyn. “I’m friends with them. They attack me, I attack them. We understand that.”

This was the old way of the Senate — one that began to fade in the late 1970s as the ideological consolidation of the parties accelerated, reducing their need and taste for compromise. By the time Schumer arrived in 1999, four years after the Newt Gingrich-helmed Republican revolution, it was fast becoming an anachronism, with meals in the senators’ bipartisan dining room giving way to one-party caucus lunches. By the time Reid became minority leader, amid the scorched-earth polarization of George W. Bush’s second term, it was all but gone.

Reid, like his Republican counterpart, McConnell, was one of the rare politicians who seemed to genuinely not care if people liked him or not. He was known for his blunt-instrument floor speeches, sandbags of verbiage delivered with minimal theatrics and less ambiguity of purpose. It was in this mode that he took to the Senate floor, a week after the election, and drew a line.

Senate Democrats had tried for years to pass the kind of infrastructure bill Trump had suggested, Reid reminded his colleagues, only to run up against Republican opposition. “If Trump wants to pursue policies that will help working people, Democrats will take a pragmatic approach,” he said. “But we also have other responsibilities.” He made clear that the price of Democratic cooperation should be Trump’s dropping of Stephen K. Bannon, the former Breitbart News executive chairman who ran his campaign and whom Trump named as his chief White House strategist two days earlier.

“In his first official act, Trump appointed a man who is seen as a champion of white supremacy as the No. 1 strategist in his White House,” Reid said. “As long as a champion of racial division is a step away from the Oval Office,” he added, “it will be impossible to take Trump’s efforts to heal the nation seriously.”

Reid and Schumer might have differed temperamentally, but they were both thinking about the 2018 midterm elections, in which 25 Democratic senators would be defending their seats. Lose eight seats, and the Republicans would have 60, enough to override a Democratic filibuster — at which point the Democrats’ debates about what they stood for or against would be academic. Five of the those senators —“the Big Five,” Schumer called them — were moderate Democrats in states in the Midwest, the Mountain West and Appalachia that Trump had just won handily. The abiding question was what, exactly, the voters who cast ballots for both Trump and, say, North Dakota’s Democratic senator, Heidi Heitkamp, were voting for in 2016; the party was still far from a clear answer.

Schumer, who began holding weekly dinners with the Big Five after the election, believed it was best to allow these senators to cooperate with Trump as necessary. But according to members of Reid’s staff at the time, Reid (who declined to comment) worried that, given Trump’s lack of interest in policy detail and disregard for ethical conflicts, even well-intentioned legislative compromises could prove to be politically costly — that an eventual backlash against the president would also fall upon Democrats who gestured toward working with him. “Reid didn’t want to validate the assumption that this incompetent blowhard could get a bill to the floor in the first place, which has proved to be a struggle for Trump so far,” Adam Jentleson, at the time Reid’s deputy chief of staff, told me.

Democrats were also still deeply divided over whether it was even possible to navigate 2017 without resolving the ideological and policy differences that fractured the party in 2016. At a closed-door meeting of the Democracy Alliance — a network of high-rolling Democratic campaign donors — at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Washington the week after the election, Senator Elizabeth Warren delivered an emotional address, excoriating the party for losing its way. One attendee paraphrased her speech to me: “People want someone to fight for them — that’s why they voted for Donald Trump. He might not actually do it, but he said he would fight for them. On trade, in American politics, we’ve gotten where we either look like we’re all about free trade without any empathy for people who have lost their jobs, or we’re rabid nationalist-protectionists. We need to build a policy in between. In 2016, we did not come out clear. When we are clear about what we believe, when we fight for people, we’ll win.” To beat pugilistic right-wing populism, maybe you needed pugilistic left-wing populism.

Reid brought Warren onto the Democratic Senate leadership team in 2014, and she was one of the people he most trusted to keep the Senate caucus on its bearings through the difficult weather ahead. Shortly before Thanksgiving, he summoned Warren to the minority leader’s office. When she arrived, the room was littered with art supplies; on an easel was a half-finished portrait of Reid that would be unveiled at his retirement party the following month. Its subject was preoccupied with the future of the party to which he had dedicated decades of his life. Reid told Warren she needed to think seriously about running for president in 2020. “He was worried in November,” Warren told me recently. “For me, it was so important to make clear: We will fight back — we will fight back. We’re not here to make this normal.”

by Charles Homans, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Photo illustration by James Victore. Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images