As a former Clinton campaign organizing fellow, November 8, 2016 was particularly devastating for me. Once the networks called the election, I was filled with fear, thinking about the damage that President Trump could do in his four years of office. One year later, it’s clear that most of my fears were unfounded. While Trump has made policy moves I disagree with, he has been unable to fulfill his most inflammatory campaign promises and has not degraded the institutions of our democracy in a substantive way. He failed to implement his travel ban, did not defund Planned Parenthood, and has not managed to defund Obamacare, to name a few. However, he has succeeded in taking more subtle steps to restrict immigration, reduce access to healthcare, and otherwise harm those most at risk in our country. Unfortunately, Democrats are doing little to counter these subtle moves because they are too focused on meaningless distractions.
Trump’s failures present Democrats with a prime opportunity to gain both the moral and political high ground, to fight fiercely for the rights of minorities, to be a strong voice for action on climate change, and to send a message about their economic vision for the country. Instead, Democrats spend day after day attacking Trump for politically incorrect speech, or claiming that our democratic institutions are under threat. Trump does indeed have authoritarian tendencies, and should be carefully watched to make sure that he does not violate the checks and balances of American democracy. But, as of yet, he has been unable to bypass the courts or Congress. Instead of wasting their political capital by crying wolf, Democrats should therefore work on improving their own image and making substantive efforts to protect populations who are vulnerable under this president. Otherwise, they will be unable to sway moderate voters to re-elect them in the future.
The numbers don’t lie. While many of the president’s policies are unpopular, the president himself is (comparatively) not: RealClearPolitics’ polling average shows he has a 38.8 percent job approval rating. While this appears low, it is more popular than George Bush in his second term and only 7 percent lower than Obama in his second term.
Still, Democratic leaders, bolstered by their outspoken base, fail to recognize Trump’s relative popularity. The public and the politicians who serve it hold very different views about the Trump administration, as is made clear when Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and others appear on cable news shows almost daily to rail against the president. Such intense partisan hysteria should worry those who want Democrats to win elections in the future: this strategy is estranging much of the country. A November 2017 poll conducted by CNN, for example, found that the Democratic Party has a disapproval rating of 59 percent, making it more unpopular than it has been in 25 years.
Democrats have become so engrossed in the scandal of the day that they are missing the bigger picture and failing to be a strong voice for justice. Most were so wrapped up in news about Robert Mueller’s investigation that they shelved protections for DACA recipients—a popular measure among the public, with a Washington Post survey reporting 86 percent approval—until after the holiday recess, breaking Chuck Schumer’s promise to act quickly. Democrats were also enraged by Trump’s comments about San Juan Mayor Carmen Cruz, but they failed to help the people of Puerto Rico by pushing for substantive aid. And, on June 1, 2017, liberals were so distracted by news that Jeff Sessions did not disclose an additional meeting with the Russian ambassador that they let Trump withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord with only half-hearted condemnation from Congress. Session’s lie will likely be forgotten by history, but Democrats’ failure to act on climate change will not.
In addition to burning political capital on issues that don’t improve the lives of citizens, Democrats are hypocritical on numerous issues. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama all argued that Jerusalem is the rightful capital of Israel. Yet, after Trump declared Jerusalem as the new capital of Israel, the uproar from the left was almost deafening. Regardless of the merits of that idea, to act as though President Trump’s decision is an existential violation of American principles is unfounded; he was following in the footsteps of his predecessors. They also accuse Trump and Republicans of trying to take healthcare away from poor citizens, but fail to acknowledge that the Affordable Care Act raised premiums and reduced the availability of coverage for tens of thousands of residents in rural areas. These attacks serve only to estrange centrist voters who see the hypocrisy in these arguments.
All of this is not to say that Democrats should be spineless, bowing to an administration that violates their values by refusing to call attention to their wrongdoings. The left can and should play an important role in standing up for the rights of disadvantaged populations, and in many respects they already have: the Women’s March, being the foundation upon which countless grassroots advocacy groups, like Indivisible, were formed, sent a clear message to the president and to the country that the left would not tolerate misogyny and gender discrimination. Likewise, the immediate outcry and pressure from the left that forced Trump to withdraw his travel ban protected millions of innocent people around the world. But examples of these substantive and productive actions are few and far between.
It’s time for the left to take a deep breath and think about how we will frame our message moving into the 2018 midterms. Yes, Republicans are guilty of partisan bickering too, and have engaged in much of the same hysteria that Democrats are now. But in the words of Michelle Obama, “when they go low, we go high.” Are we going to be a party consumed by thoughts of impeachment and condemnation of minor scandals, or are we going to be a party that spends our time protecting those who need it most? The future of our party, and the country, depends on our choice.
Image Credit: Flickr / Kelly DeLay