WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats think they can hold Donald Trump accountable by challenging him to deliver on issues where he has made populist noises.
Supporters of this strategy insist that offering to work with Trump where he shares the Democrats’ goals is the best way to split the Republican Party or, alternatively, to expose Trump’s flimflam if he fails to come through.
In normal political circumstances, this approach might be just the ticket. Yet this moment is anything but normal.
Millions who feel vulnerable to Trump’s moves on immigration and equality before the law – as well as his departures from widely accepted ethical and constitutional norms – are now looking to Democratic leaders to send strong, unambiguous signals of resistance.
His selection of right-wing figures such as Stephen Bannon and Michael Flynn for White House posts and of longtime civil rights foe Jeff Sessions as attorney general only feed legitimate demands for a strong pushback. Trump is showing few signs of being the “pragmatic” soul President Obama said he is. New York magazine writer Jonathan Chait noted that all three hires are animated by “an intensified and narrow nationalism” and a desire to “preserve white Christian American identity.”
Charles Schumer, the incoming Senate Democratic leader, says that there will be no backing down in the many areas where his party finds itself implacably opposed to Trump.
“Where he goes divisive, where he opposes our values,” Schumer said in a telephone interview, “we’ll oppose him with everything we have.” He offered a long list of controversies on which such opposition would be unrelenting, including repeal of the Affordable Care Act and Wall Street reforms.
But in setting tough standards on a big infrastructure program, better trade policies and other economic concerns, Schumer argues, Democrats will either win significant policy victories or demonstrate to Trump’s working-class backers where his priorities really lie.
Schumer says that refusing to work with Trump altogether would be “to close the door … when middle-class jobs and incomes are at stake.” This, he added, “would be unfair to our constituencies.”
Let it be said that the ideologically polyglot Senate Democrats confront tough political terrain, including the 2018 midterm elections, when 25 of their caucus members face re-election. They include senators in 10 states Trump carried, five of which are deeply red.
The let’s-test-Trump strategy has the benefit of bringing the philosophical ends of Schumer’s team together.
The Democrats in the most conservative states are wary, right out of the box, of fighting a man who is very popular with their voters.
Progressives, in the meantime, want to compete hard to win back blue-collar voters. The best way to do that, Sen. Bernie Sanders has argued, is to press Trump to keep pledges to them that fall outside the conservatives’ ideological comfort zone while strenuously opposing racist and xenophobic policies.
I have known Schumer for many years. I respect his skill at coalition building and also his savvy and toughness. “We have no illusions about Donald Trump,” he asserted, and he pledged to oppose Trump nominees if “even a scintilla of bigotry … remains attached to them.”
That’s good. Sessions’ nomination will be a particular test. Senators are typically kind to one another, but the Alabama Republican’s history on race is so extreme that business as usual would be a grave default for a party that has long championed civil rights and voting rights.
Still, there is a larger question here. Given the shape Trump’s presidency is taking, Democrats – both left and center – must make a commitment that goes beyond specific programs and voter groups. If they do not issue very clear warnings and lay out very bright lines against the most odious and alarming aspects of Trumpism, they will be abdicating their central obligation as the party of opposition. This is not a time for carrying out ideological battles, for factional positioning in future party fights, or for thinking about the 2018 elections.
Yes, Democrats need to figure out, as Schumer suggests, how they can speak for the voters they lost on Nov. 8 as well as the core constituencies that stuck with Hillary Clinton. This will, indeed, mean calling on Trump to defy his own party in cases where his campaign ideas broke with Republican orthodoxy.
But there will be opportunities to deal with infrastructure and trade, family leave and child care. Now is the time to make clear that if Trump abandons basic norms of decency, all the roads in the world won’t pave over his transgressions.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.