Democrats begin the Donald Trump presidency in sad shape. They lack a clear power base, they’ve got no distinct national leader, and party brokers are searching for a formula to counter the new Republican-dominated government and figure out how to win again.
It’s a curious and dispiriting position for a party that has led the national popular vote six out of the past seven presidential elections. Yet Hillary Clinton lost the Electoral College count, while Republicans maintained their largest House majority since 1928 and kept control of the Senate — with 2018 advantages that offer the potential of a Senate supermajority in two years.
Outside Washington, Democrats now have just 16 governors and run 14 state legislatures, compared to 33 Republican governors and 32 GOP-run legislative bodies.
“We haven’t been in this shape in a while … but we will rebuild,” insists interim Democratic Party Chairwoman Donna Brazile.
And Republicans have their own challenges.
Control means answering for everything from the economy to health care. Trump enters the Oval Office with the lowest approval ratings of any newly inaugurated president in more than a generation, and he’s an unapologetic freelancer who sometimes flouts GOP orthodoxy.
That leaves elected Democrats to decide how they will treat the new president as they try to woo middle-class voters — particularly whites — who were lost in November from President Barack Obama’s winning coalitions.
Party insiders will choose Brazile’s DNC successor next month, a campaign that has revived fissures between the party’s liberal and centrist factions. The next chairman will jockey with Congress’ Democratic leaders and perhaps Obama as the party tries to settle on a national standard-bearer.
Around the country, Democrats are quietly looking to the 2018 midterm elections, with a focus on governor races that will give the party its first tangible shot at climbing out of the present crater. Republicans will be defending more than two dozen seats, including in Democratic-leaning states like Massachusetts and Maryland.
No clear consensus guides all those moving parts.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California says Democrats must “fight with more clarity” on issues affecting average Americans, such as health care and laws covering wages.
“We’ve done it before, we know how to do it,” she says of winning.
Yet she adds that Democrats have a responsibility to work with Trump where there is common ground, such as infrastructure spending.
That’s a divergence from Republicans’ near-absolute, eight-year opposition to Obama. It’s also a seeming contrast to the man many top Democrats have endorsed for party chairman: Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota.
“This question of whether we fight back right away or not, that question has been answered,” Ellison said in a DNC chairmanship debate this week. “He has already started to institute a right-wing program, so of course we have to fight.”
Outgoing Labor Secretary Tom Perez, viewed as Ellison’s stiffest competitor, offered slightly more nuance. He dubbed Trump “a target-rich environment” and said Democrats can “hit him with a two-by-four.” But, he added, “What we can’t do is go after him every time. You can’t meet him tweet for tweet. I think we’ve got to be surgical.”
In Michigan, a key state in Trump’s November victory, Obama campaign veteran Amy Chapman said the 2010 tea party movement gives Democrats a model.
“Fighting against something brings people together,” she argued, adding that intense opposition doesn’t have to conflict with some compromises that help Democrats avoid an “obstructionist” label.
Steve Israel, a former New York congressman now advising the Democratic Governors Association, noted political fortunes are never as solidified — for better or worse — as predicted in the wake of elections.
Republicans hailed the notion of a “permanent majority” after George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004. Eight years later, when Obama won a second term, Republicans fretted about their long-term prospects in an increasingly diverse country. And in November, Trump’s Electoral College margin came by a cumulative margin of fewer than 100,000 votes in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Given that, Israel said Democrats’ best measure on strategy and tactics is simple: “Does this win back Obama-Trump voters?”
Confirmation hearings for Trump Cabinet picks so far show that even Israel’s standard isn’t absolute.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have sharply, even mockingly questioned multiple choices, whereas Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia introduced former Texas Gov. Rick Perry before his confirmation hearing for energy secretary. Manchin is one of 10 Democratic senators facing re-election in states where Trump won.
But the seeming conflicts in the theater of confirmations may actually preview the right approach, according to some Democrats.
Tessa Gould, chief of staff to North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, said politicians like her boss, up for re-election in 2018, must be given the space to work in a bipartisan manner. “These 2018ers, they are really good about taking care of the politics back home,” Gould said.
Another Obama campaign veteran, Florida Democrat Steve Schale, agreed that Democrats must avoid a one-size-fits-all idea, even if voters rewarded Republicans for their opposition to Obama.
“Both parties have gotten themselves so narrowly cast that literally everything has to go right to win elections,” he said.