Who’s in charge around here?, Democrats are starting to ask themselves as Donald Trump dominates the headlines. As the president-elect rolls out the most activist conservative cabinet seen in decades, Democrats find themselves without any organized response or even a common set of talking points. Instead, surrogates are “winging it” on talk shows and muttering about the state of organization as Trump prepares to launch his 100-days agenda on January 20th:
As Donald Trump’s inauguration draws near, Democrats fear they remain woefully unprepared to fight the new president’s agenda.
The party loses its standard-bearer once President Barack Obama leaves office, and the Democratic National Committee won’t get a permanent chairman and staff until March, two months into the presidency. That Democratic power vacuum has raised concerns about the party’s ability to provide a united message — or even to stand up a centralized rapid response operation — for the president’s first 100 days in office.
Their worst nightmare is that Trump, ever the showman, will define his opening act with little unified resistance.
“It’s a very serious concern. I just went on TV twice today on Fox and MSNBC on the Cabinet appointments and I winged it,” said Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor and 2008 presidential candidate. “You need something right now. Trump every day is doing something outrageous. What do we do? Criticize everything he does? Hold back a bit? I know we need to develop an economic message but that’s long term. We need something now. Most of the Democrats I talk to are down, and they’re asking who’s in charge.”
Didn’t Democrats decide on leadership in Congress over the last couple of weeks? The House put the triumvirate of Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and James Clyburn back in power despite having lost four straight elections, and after promising 25 pickups in this cycle and only getting six. Senate Democrats handed the crown off to Chuck Schumer as the next in line after Harry Reid. That’s a remarkable exercise in continuity after an even more spectacular failure to win back the majority with Republicans defending 13 more seats than Democrats.
And yet, with all that continuity, Democrats are so lost that they can’t even manage to suggest a unified message post-election. Perhaps part of that is due to their denial of what happened in November, choosing instead to insult voters with excuses about “fake news” and Russian tampering — as if Russia somehow hid Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania from the Clinton campaign’s strategists. If only you rubes weren’t so gullible, Democrats seem to be saying, you would have chosen the candidate who was actively writing you off in the campaign. For all of its problematic nature, it does have the virtue of consistency with handing the reins back to Pelosi and Schumer.
The competition for the DNC chair doesn’t offer a lot of hope that Democrats know what they want in the next two years, either. The Hill reports that the candidates are all over the map on ideology and messaging, and that outgoing Labor Secretary Tom Perez is being suggested as a compromise candidate:
Meanwhile, speculation continues to build that Labor Secretary Tom Perez could join the DNC race, perhaps functioning as a bridge between the more establishment-minded thinkers around the Obama and Clinton camps and the progressives who look to Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) as their standard-bearers.
The dividing lines between some of these positions can be the source of friction, even when they are expressed in respectful terms. When Sanders argued in a Medium post soon after the election that diversity was important but “to think of diversity purely in racial and gender terms is not sufficient,” he faced immediate blowback on social media, especially from non-white progressives.
There are worries in some quarters that the party will try to re-fight this election when the next one rolls around, a strategy that would presumably involve emphasizing an appeal to white voters in the Rust Belt. Skeptics worry that such an effort, especially if couched in culturally conservative terms, could erode the party’s support with black and Hispanic voters as well as liberal young people.
Any compromise that casts Perez as a middle-of-the-road figure in a party is one that will all but ensure its continuing retreat to coastal enclaves. If Richardson’s looking for an effective answer, he and his fellow Democratic surrogates won’t find it at the DNC with Perez or Keith Ellison in charge.
Right now, Trump’s in charge, perhaps ironically so given Democrats’ initial arguments that Trump lacked a mandate. They’re discovering now that Republicans have enough political capital to operate as they please … for now. The problem in single-party governance is always overreach, getting so caught up in their status that arrogance begins to turn to hubris. That might be a particular risk with the conservative-activist Cabinet Trump is putting together. Democrats might be better off laying low and waiting for an opening. However, they have to deal with their own arrogance before organizing for that opportunity, and so far they’re overreaching on that score more than Republicans.