Politics & Policy

Can the Democrats’ Tea-Party Plan Work?

Protesters decry President Trump’s immigration policies in New York City, Februrary 11, 2017. (Reuters photo: Stephanie Keith)
A leftist insurgency shouldn’t be dismissed, but it might be a tougher sell than they think.

After weeks of being forced to rely on partisan Saturday Night Live comedy skits to keep their morale up, Democrats finally had some genuine good news last week. The spectacle of crowds heckling Republican members of Congress at town-hall meetings warmed the hearts of liberals who, despite what they think is ample evidence of the new administration’s incompetence and ill intent, remain powerless in a Washington where the GOP controls both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

The left-wing impulse to resist rather than to futilely oppose Trump had, it seemed, finally found a practical outlet. These incidents built on the mobilization efforts that tried but failed to defeat the confirmations of various Trump Cabinet appointments. But the town-hall demonstrations also seemed a conscious effort to replicate the success conservatives achieved in the summer of 2009 with the first stirrings of the Tea Party. The analogy was enough to encourage liberals to believe that the same pattern of grassroots unrest could lead to a midterm landslide and produce a Democratic Congress in 2018.

The boldest of such predictions came from the Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker, who wrote on Friday claiming that the protests showed that the political pendulum was already swinging back to the left. But, not satisfied with just a vision of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer riding a left-wing Tea Party wave back to power, she also was ready to assert that this meant that Trump wouldn’t serve out his term as president. A Democratic Congress would, she wrote, impeach and convict Trump on grounds she described as “an accumulating pile of lies, overreach and just plain sloppiness.” That’s an interesting definition of the “high crimes and misdemeanors” that the Constitution requires for impeachment, but she’s probably right that the details wouldn’t matter much if the Democrats had a chance to overturn the results of the 2016 election.

That’s heady stuff for Democrats who are more absorbed with recovering from their shock at losing in November than in taking up the hard work of evaluating why they are at their lowest point since the onset of the Great Depression. But Republicans shouldn’t simply dismiss Parker’s fantasy. As Democrats learned in 2009, simply saying that you won the last election and the opposition should get over it is no guarantee that you aren’t in for a hard time. Public opinion is fickle, and no one should underestimate the consequences of continually losing news cycles, as the Trump team has done recently, owing more to their own mistakes than to the malevolence of their foes in the press. If Democrats organize a genuine grassroots uprising against Trump rather than merely issue orders to the populace to follow their lead from their mainstream media and popular-culture megaphones, that gives them a fighting chance to win in 2018.

But the problem with Parker’s daydream is that it may be more a product of the liberal echo chamber, in which everything Trump and the Republicans say or do is seen as a harbinger of the Apocalypse, than just the function of a new administration and inexperienced president blundering their way through its first weeks amid a uniquely hostile media environment.

The assumptions about Democrats’ turning the tables on the Republicans must also be questioned. Even if we accept that Trump is far more unpopular than President Obama was eight years ago, the electoral math behind Parker’s vision is shaky. In our bifurcated nation, there are few House swing seats at stake in 2018. The Democrats will also be defending an unusually large number of Senate seats with many of them in deep red states. Democrats will be hard pressed not to lose ground, let alone gain control of both the House and the Senate. It will also require them to do something they haven’t managed to accomplish in more than a decade: turning out more of their base for a midterm than the Republicans.

But there is a bigger obstacle to Parker’s scenario. There were elements of the Tea Party uprising that were primarily focused on their antipathy for President Obama. But for the most part it was the result of a backlash against Obama’s stimulus spending and ramming Obamacare down the throats of an unwilling country by a party-line vote. Though many Democrats continue to insist that the Tea Party was an illusion produced by Koch brothers’ money, it was a mass movement driven by issues, not personalities.

By contrast, the Democrats’ attempt to replicate that surge from the left is largely limited to anger about Trump’s immigration executive orders. There may be some sympathy for refugees from Syria and some of the other terrorist hotbeds, but it is not as widespread as liberals think. Pocketbook issues, not left-wing virtue signaling, drive the kind of grassroots uprisings in the American heartland that create wave elections. Unless the Democrats can come up with such an issue that sticks, such as a defense of those who benefit from Obamacare (a problem a deft replacement plan could fix), they are not in as strong a position as they think.

In the absence of such a kitchen-table reason to throw out the GOP, the Democrats are left with their paranoid delusions about a Trump coup. That sort of conspiracy mongering is, as I noted here yesterday, not limited to the fever swamps but is now being adopted by mainstream liberal pundits. In the New York Times on Friday, Paul Krugman outlined his belief that Trump would use any terrorist attack to essentially void the Constitution, and even Parker’s optimism about the president’s impending fall was tempered by worries that the republic may not last long enough to see his overthrow. They genuinely believe he will declare martial law and suppress dissent. What they fail to realize is that while this sort of extremist hysteria appeals to their base, it’s likely a turnoff to the centrist voters they’re going to need if they are to realize their ambition to cut Trump’s time in office short.

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