This weekend, more than 1 million people took to the streets nationwide for the anniversary of the Women’s March. Though not nearly as big as the protests a year ago, it was still a larger public manifestation than anything the Tea Party ever managed. And though the demonstration was meant as a rebuke to Donald Trump, one central demand was that Congress stand up for the young unauthorized immigrants known as Dreamers, who were brought to the country as children. They now face deportation because Trump has moved to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era program protecting them.
The energy of the progressive grass roots should be seen as a valuable resource for Democrats. If Donald Trump’s election taught us anything beyond the salience of white nationalism among our fellow citizens, it’s that passion matters, and that people respond when they see a leader who is willing to champion them even when it’s risky. That’s why it was so infuriating to see the Senate Democratic leadership sell the Dreamers out.
On Monday afternoon, Senate Democrats made a deal with Republicans to reopen the federal government, which has been shut since Congress failed to pass a budget bill Friday. Democrats had been using their leverage in budget negotiations to demand that Congress pass DACA protections into law. But almost as soon as the shutdown began, Democrats lost their nerve, and the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, announced a deal to fund the government through Feb. 8. In exchange, he received a vague promise by the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, to take up some sort of immigration legislation after Feb. 8 if a more wide-ranging compromise on the budget and DACA can’t be found first.
It’s hard to overstate how disgusted many progressive leaders are. “It’s Sen. Schumer’s job as minority leader to keep his caucus together and stand up for progressive values and he failed to do it,” Ezra Levin, a co-founder of Indivisible, a left-wing advocacy group modeled on the Tea Party, told me. “He led them off a cliff. They caved.” (An Indivisible chapter is planning a Tuesday evening protest outside Schumer’s Brooklyn apartment.) Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, D-Ill., said in a statement, “This shows me that when it comes to immigrants, Latinos and their families, Democrats are still not willing to go to the mat.”
McConnell has already demonstrated that his word is worth little. In December, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, voted for her party’s tax bill after receiving what she said was an “ironclad” commitment from McConnell to take up further legislation on health care by the end of 2017. No such legislation has been forthcoming. That month, McConnell also promised that if bipartisan negotiators in the Senate could come to an agreement on immigration, he’d bring it to a vote in January. Last week, Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., introduced just such an agreement, and McConnell refused to let the Senate consider it.
But even if McConnell were a decent and honorable man, a DACA deal in the Senate means nothing unless it’s attached to must-pass legislation in the House. And Democrats have no agreement from Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who has a policy of refusing to introduce legislation that doesn’t have majority Republican support, even if it could pass on a bipartisan basis.
Some Democrats in Washington, spooked by Republican accusations that by shutting down the government they were hurting the military to protect noncitizens, think Schumer took the safe, cautious course. They may be right. One poll taken before the shutdown showed that voters were more likely to blame Republicans than Democrats, but another revealed that most didn’t think it was worth shutting down the government to pass DACA. There was a legitimate fear among Democrats that if the shutdown dragged on, they would lose ground and the public might even turn against the Dreamers, who now have broad bipartisan support.
But political cowardice carries its own risk. It emboldens your enemies and disheartens your allies. It’s true that Democrats had a lot to lose, but Republicans had even more; if Trump had to deliver his State of the Union to a nonfunctioning government, it would have underlined the sense that he’s a chaos president. Instead, Democrats reinforced their reputation for fecklessness. “Make no mistake: Schumer and Dems caved,” tweeted Fox News’ Brit Hume. “What a political fiasco.” It makes me sick to say it, but he’s right.
Aside from the immorality of forsaking the Dreamers, Schumer’s deal is bad for Resistance morale, which hurts Democrats going into 2018. Levin told me about an Indivisible leader in a battleground state whom he’d spoken to on Sunday. Like many in the Resistance, she’s a working mother and had grown weary of knocking on doors every weekend. But seeing the Democrats fighting for DACA, she told him, “makes me want to get out all the more.” Millions of Americans are spending every spare moment trying to limit the damage Trump is causing to this country. If Schumer can’t lead them, he should at least follow.