The latest in a continuing series on whether Democratic leaders like Chuck Schumer (and Barack Obama) will try to cultivate Trump or declare war from the outset and obstruct on everything, forcing a hard think by Mitch McConnell on the future of the filibuster. Liberal activists want obstruction, partly as payback for the GOP’s “I hope he fails” approach to Obama and partly because obstruction paid off handsomely in electoral gains for Republicans. Democrats in Congress want to try to cooperation, though, at least at first, knowing that a big-government fan like Trump may be susceptible to persuasion on policy.
Who wins that battle? A clue from Pew:
To put that in context, when Obama was elected in 2008, 59 percent of GOP voters said they wanted congressional Republicans to try to work with him to get things done even if it meant disappointing supporters. Rank-and-file Democrats are in a far more obstructionist mood right now, in other words, than their counterparts on the right were eight years ago. Time for Schumer to declare war on Trump then, right?
Well, hold on. No less than 58 percent of Clinton voters say they’re willing to give Trump a chance to see how he governs. There’s also this:
Clinton voters nearly unanimously want Trump to try to work with Democrats (interestingly, so do a majority of Trump voters) even though they want their own leaders to stand up to him. How to make sense of all that? Why are Democrats, who spent eight years lamenting Washington paralysis, now gung ho for confrontation when even Republican voters didn’t feel that way towards Obama in 2008?
I think it’s mostly, but not completely, a function of Trump being seen as something “different” and uniquely dangerous by critics because of his demagoguery and strongman persona. There still would have been an unusually large number of Dems calling for their leaders to “stand up to” a new Republican president, even if that president were Kasich or Rubio instead of Trump, for the “payback” reason I noted above. But Trump is rocket fuel for that impulse because of how unusual a character he is in modern American political history. Case in point:
Only once before in 30 years has the losing candidate finished ahead of the winning candidate in how well each “conducted himself” during a campaign and that was a one-point difference in 2000. Only once before has the winner finished below 50 percent in terms of earning an “A” or a “B” in how he conducted himself; that was Bush 41 during the year the Willie Horton ad ran, and he finished just one point shy of the mark. Trump, at a pitiful 30 percent and more than 10 points behind Hillary, is in uncharted territory. (Of note tangentially: In both cases in the past 16 years where the new president lost the popular vote, he finished behind the popular-vote winner in how he conducted himself.) Relatedly, here’s a detail from a new Gallup poll out today showing that a new record-high of 77 percent see the U.S. as “greatly divided” on its most important values. The number had never been above 70 percent, until now:
As context for those numbers, Gallup included how Americans answered after two of the most divisive elections of my life, Bush’s 2004 win amid the Iraq war and Obama’s reelection victory in 2012. In both cases majorities of Americans thought the new president would do more to unite the country than divide it, 57/39 for Bush and 55/42 for Obama. Again, as an incoming president who’s underwater in that metric, Trump is in territory uncharted in recent political history.
The impulse among Democrats for their leaders to stand up to him on issues that are “important to Democrats” is of a piece with that, I think. Whereas under other Republican administrations the “important” issues would be familiar hot buttons like taxes, spending, abortion rights, etc, Trump’s authoritarian tendencies may force confrontations on more basic principles, like how much freedom the press should have and what sorts of orders the military should have to obey from the president. There are “important” issues and then there are important issues. This is why, if you follow politics on social media, lately you hear liberals constantly chattering about not “normalizing” Trump. The obstructionist impulse among Dems derives in part from the fear, rightly or not, that Trump won’t want compromise from Schumer and his caucus on anodyne matters of budgeting and foreign policy but on assumptions about American political norms that had been taken as given until now. Not “normalizing” him requires standing up to him on the “important” stuff.
One more data point from the Pew numbers. The next time you hear about Republicans becoming more ideologically radical, remember this:
It is true that Republicans have consistently preferred to see the party become more conservative since 2008 while Democrats, until this year, preferred greater moderation. It’s also true that GOPers’ preference for conservatism is greater than Democrats’ new preference for liberalism: The GOP numbers have hovered in the 57-60 percent range on that over the last eight years whereas Dems have yet to see a clear majority that wants the party to become more liberal. But the trend on the left is important, especially if you’re among the shrinking number on the right who’d prefer smaller government. Between Trump’s victory, Bernie Sanders’s surprising populist success in the primaries, and the ideological drift you’re seeing among Democrats here, the future of U.S. politics may be mostly an argument about how much bigger and more proactive the feds should get.