Progressives prepare for battle against Trump
After two months of licking their wounds, progressive Democrats say they’re ready to take on President-elect Donald Trump.
Mobilized in part by the stunning primary campaign waged by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — who will participate in a CNN town hall Monday at 9pm ET — progressives now find themselves at the center of the Democratic resistance as the party navigates its way through the Trump era.
With Hillary Clinton defeated and President Barack Obama counting down his final days in office, the party is increasingly reliant on Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and other leading progressives to set its message — and pick its battles.
Those battles begin this week, as Democrats make the case that Trump is selling out his working class base by tapping corporate figures such as ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson for secretary of state, Goldman Sachs veteran Steve Mnuchin for treasury secretary and fast food executive Adam Puzder for labor secretary. Jane Sanders, Bernie Sanders’ wife and close political adviser, said progressives intend to hold Trump to the populist stances he took on the campaign trail.
“We’ll work with him when he’s right and we’ll oppose him when he’s wrong, and hold him to some of the words he used to get elected, like saying he wouldn’t cut Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid and that he was a different kind of politician,” she told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
Senate Democrats are also planning long floor speeches late into the Monday night hours as they protest GOP plans to repeal Obamacare. Leading progressives in the Senate are coordinating calls with activist groups to take place just off the Senate floor during those protest speeches.
“People know that Trump is unpopular and didn’t win the popular vote, and are therefore very psyched to fight,” said Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
Progressive leaders are identifying Sanders and Warren as their chief spokespeople.
“Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have de facto been catapulted into top leadership positions of the Democratic Party,” he said. “They are, in many ways, the two top spokespeople for both the Democratic Party and the progressive caucus on the inside of Congress.”
But others are also playing key roles. Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley has taken the lead in organizing an inside-outside game, coordinating progressive organizations’ activities with Democratic lawmakers, activists said. Within the party, Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison is the progressive wing’s choice to lead the Democratic National Committee. And Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, up for re-election in 2018, is perhaps the best test case that economic populism can carry Democrats to victory even in the age of Trump.
The progressives’ strategy: Fight Trump on absolutely everything.
“We are now the party of opposition, and we need to act like it. Way too often, Democrats, when we get out of power, we bend over backwards trying to find ways to work with the other party — often to the detriment of our values,” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America, the progressive grassroots group founded by Howard Dean. “And that cannot happen with this administration. We need to stand absolutely strong on our values, and uncompromising.”
“The default is to believe that we’re going to need to fight and stop just about everything that is coming down the pike,” he said.
A steep hill
Hillary Clinton’s loss revealed the depth of the disarray Democrats now confront.
As Obama departs the White House, his party is set to lose all its levers of power in Washington.
Making matters more daunting for Democrats: Changes to Senate rules made when the party had the majority now mean its members can’t block any of Trump’s nominees. Nor can Democrats stop the GOP push to repeal Obamacare using the same filibuster-avoiding budget rules Obama used to push the health reform law through Congress.
The party is also down to 17 of the nation’s 50 governor’s offices, and Republicans have full control of the state legislatures in 32 states — realities that make it harder for Democrats to stop changes to voting access laws that have hurt the party.
It is, in part, a result of the Democrats on the ballot in 2016, Chamberlain said.
Chamberlain pointed to Clinton’s loss, as well as Democrats such as Florida’s Patrick Murphy and Indiana’s Evan Bayh who were perceived as “in bed with Wall Street corporations.” They both lost Senate races Democrats hoped to win.
“I think that we have to recognize that when you win the popular vote by 3 million but still lose the election by less than 100,000 votes in three states, that’s a campaign problem. That’s potentially a candidate problem,” he said. “And we had a candidate who had an extremely mixed record on economic populism at the top of the ticket.”
Still, much of the erosion took place under Obama — not Clinton.
“I take some responsibility on that,” Obama told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in an interview aired Sunday on “This Week.”
He said a still-recovering economy cost Democrats in the 2010 midterms — allowing Republicans to build in “a huge structural advantage in subsequent elections” through the once-a-decade redistricting process.
“What is also true is that partly because my docket was really full here, so I couldn’t be both chief organizer of the Democratic Party and function as commander-in-chief and President of the United States,” Obama said. “We did not begin what I think needs to happen over the long haul, and that is rebuild the Democratic Party at the ground level.”
He even eschewed the tactics that carried him to victory in 2008 and 2012, saying he wants Democrats to make sure “we aren’t just micro-targeting to eke out presidential victories; it means that we’re showing up in places where right now we’re not winning a lot.”
Obama said the party should carry its message of an increased minimum wage, expanded access to health insurance, economic populism and environmental protections to rural and exurban areas “that feel as if they’re being ignored.”
“If we’re not there making the argument then the cultural gulf that Republicans try to exploit, saying, ‘Ah, these city slickers: they’re all looking down on you, they don’t care about you. They’re just trying to help out their various special interest constituencies,’ that argument ends up being successful,” Obama said. “And so we’ve got to do a better job of showing up. And I was able to do that when I was the candidate. But I have not — I’ve not seen or presided over that kind of systematic outreach that I think needs to happen.”
The Sanders-led progressive movement is attempting to exert its influence on an internal Democratic battle as the party searches for its new chair.
Sanders and a host of progressive groups have endorsed Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison to helm the Democratic National Committee. But he faces a stiff competition with Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who is backed by many Clinton and Obama veterans, as well as South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and several others.
Ellison and Perez are the race’s leading contenders — and in many ways, their supporters are fighting the second round of the Democratic primary, with Sanders, Warren and other progressives in Ellison’s corner.
“It’s not like Perez is a corporate Democrat. He’s a fine progressive on policy. He’s just more of a policy wonk — he’s not a progressive organizer,” Green said. “Keith has been in the trenches with progressive organizers for years.”
The more immediate battle facing progressives is on Capitol Hill, where Democrats are trying to fight Trump’s nominations and the Republican push to repeal Obamacare.
Warren and Washington Sen. Patty Murray are set to host a forum Tuesday with fast food workers who say they were mistreated by Puzder — counter-programming for the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing that won’t feature those voices.
“It’s possible to start winning on the messaging front even before the votes are in on any one particular battle,” Green said.
He said the key for progressives now is a synchronized message that Trump is selling out his voters by appointing corporate honchos to key government posts — “giving away the farm to giant corporations,” as Green puts it.
“Our side will be at its weakest if we have 10 different responses to 10 different crazy things that Trump and the Republicans do,” he said. “Even if they’re good responses, if they’re ad hoc and one-off, we lose.”
By Eric Bradner