Democrats have been in power for so long that they’ve forgotten how to oppose. Their party has been on a roll since 2005, when the botched Social Security reform, the slow bleed of the Iraq war, and Hurricane Katrina sent the Bush administration into a tailspin. The Democrats won the Congress the following year and the White House two years after that. And while they lost the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014, Democrats still had the advantage of retaining the White House, a president seemingly immune from criticism, the courts, the bureaucracy, and large portions of the media. The correlation of forces in Washington has weighed heavily in favor of the Democrats for a decade.
No longer. The election of Donald Trump has brought unified Republican government to Washington and overturned our understanding of how politics works. Or at least it should have done so. The Democrats seem not to understand how to deal with Trump and the massive change he is about to bring to the nation’s capital. During the general election they fell for the idea that Trump can be defeated by conventional means, spending hundreds of millions of dollars in negative television advertising and relying on political consultants beholden to whatever line Politico was selling on a given day. This strategy failed Trump’s Republican primary opponents, but Democrats figured that was simply because the GOP was filled with deplorables. It was a rationalization that would cost them.
Smarting from the failed nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, the Senate minority leader pledged to oppose Donald Trump’s nominee weeks before inauguration day. “If they don’t appoint somebody good,” he said on MSNBC, “we’re going to oppose them tooth and nail.” That would “absolutely” include keeping the seat held by the late Antonin Scalia empty, he said. “We are not going to make it easy for them to pick a Supreme Court justice.”
I suppose it’s too much to expect a graduate of Harvard Law School to grasp the difference between majority and minority. Mitch McConnell was able to block Garland’s appointment because the Republicans controlled the Senate. The Democrats do not. And McConnell was able to hold his caucus together because he was on solid historical ground. Lyndon Johnson’s nomination of Abe Fortas as chief justice failed in the election year 1968, and the so-called “Biden Rule” of 1992 stipulated no Supreme Court replacements during the last year of a presidency. Schumer himself, in a 2007 speech, expanded the waiting period to the final 18 months of a president’s term. Now, despite a record of calling on the Senate to confirm the president’s nominees — as long as the president is a Democrat — Schumer has adopted the strategy of no Supreme Court confirmations at all. How does he think President Trump will respond? By caving?
I don’t expect the Democrats to roll over for Trump. But I am surprised by their hysterics, and by their race to see who can be the most obnoxious to the new president.
The blanket opposition to President-elect Trump extends to his appointments at large. Democrats can thank Harry Reid for allowing executive-branch officials and lower-court judges to be approved by a majority vote. But the Washington Post reports that Schumer wants to prolong the confirmation process so that some Trump cabinet officials are not confirmed until March. The reason: “Democrats have been troubled by a lack of personal disclosure by Cabinet choices that they say mirrors Trump’s refusal to disclose personal tax information during the presidential campaign.” The presidential campaign that, in case the Democrats have forgotten, Trump won.
Reviving the issue of the tax returns makes little sense. It generates headlines but doesn’t move votes. And though it’s entirely possible that one or more of Trump’s nominees won’t be confirmed, I seriously doubt it. In every incoming administration there is a personal revelation or atrocious hearing that dooms a cabinet appointment. But hearings begin next week, whether Chuck Schumer likes it or not, and so far the quality of the opposition research against Trump’s picks has been remarkably blah.Yes, the first duty of the opposition is to oppose. And I don’t expect the Democrats to roll over for Trump. But I am surprised by their hysterics, and by their race to see who can be the most obnoxious to the new president. They seem to have been caught off guard, to say the least, by their situation. Take for example their willingness to stand on a podium beside a sign that reads, “Make America Sick Again.” By embracing this message, such as it is, the Democrats associated not Trump but themselves with illness. Who on earth thought that was a good idea?
It takes time to adjust. The Democrats may be counting on inertia and the media to slow the Republicans down and force them into a defensive crouch. Worked in the past. But here’s the thing about Trump: He doesn’t play defense.
— Matthew Continetti is the editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon, where this column first appeared. © 2017 All rights reserved