President Trump’s executive order blocking refugees from entering the United States and restricting immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries is providing Democrats with an immense political opportunity. It is an issue that unites the party’s left-wing base, which champions diversity, and cosmopolitan Republicans alarmed by the order’s hard-heartedness and careless implementation.
If Democrats are smart, they’ll see that this could mark the beginning of a realignment in American politics, adjusting their opposition to accommodate the new political reality. The old dividing lines—a Left that supports activist government and a Right that wants limited government—are being pulverized by an administration that wants to use the power of government to issue populist diktats designed to rally a blue-collar base.
Democrats need to recognize that Trump’s executive orders are probably popular with most Trump voters—including many working-class voters who defected to the GOP—but threaten to alienate a sizable share of rank-and-file Republican voters who champion free trade, free markets, and an internationalist foreign policy. They’ll need to understand that if they temporarily put aside their differences on polarizing issues like abortion, they can forge coalitions of convenience with disaffected Republicans.
They’ll need to stop dwelling on a “swamp Cabinet” of wealthy individuals, and train their fire at the populist-nationalists with the real influence in the White House. They’ll recognize that the key to winning back power rests in the House, where it’s imperative they pick up some GOP-leaning districts in suburban territory where Trump is unusually unpopular.
The political reaction to Trump’s executive order on immigration offers an outline of how Democrats are positioned to persuade. At least eight GOP senators issued statements explicitly criticizing Trump’s executive order, with 15 others expressing qualms about how it was implemented. The list of House Republicans expressing anxiety reads like a roster of swing-seat members vulnerable in two years. Meanwhile, all of the red-state Senate Democrats up for reelection in 2018 have come out against Trump’s position—a sign that the political winds on the issue are firmly in their favor.
But Democrats risk missing a golden opportunity if they fall prey to the short-term temptation of opposing everything Trump does instead of strategically exploiting the issues that can break Republicans away from the administration. They already have a gold mine of material—Trump’s coziness with Vladimir Putin, his eagerness to pick a trade fight with Mexico, and the administration’s bizarre double-down on avoiding any reference to Jews in a recognition of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Raise heat on these issues, and Democrats will find surprising allies.
Just look at the Koch brothers’ reaction to the first week of the Trump presidency, and their plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in 2018—some of it as a “potent resistance movement” against elements of Trump’s agenda. At a retreat featuring prominent Republican senators and donors over the weekend, the family said the Trump immigration ban was anathema to the Koch network’s values. The same philanthropists whom Harry Reid demeaned as unpatriotic could become the Democrats’ friends in the new Trump era. Democrats may regret demeaning the family’s libertarian principles as GOP cheerleading when many Koch ideas could serve Democrats’ political interests.
But if Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer caters to the whims of progressives, it’s a surefire way to alienate unlikely allies. The base is already energized; the key is to pick off wobbly Republicans. Threatening to oppose Trump’s Supreme Court nominee at all costs as revenge for Republicans blocking Merrick Garland will only drive Republicans away—and push them to blow up the filibuster. Democrats should save their political capital for a future Supreme Court battle, when Republicans may try to replace a retiring liberal with a conservative.
President Obama, less than two weeks after leaving office, should know better than to inject himself in the debate over Trump’s immigration order. As president, he was the polarizer-in-chief, proudly pushing the bounds of public opinion to champion a deeply liberal agenda. He rarely offered concessions to his ideological opponents—a nod that Americans have legitimate concerns about national security, for example—helping fuel the extremes of the opposition.
But now Democrats need to put forward new leaders, ones who can passionately condemn the excesses of the Trump administration without sounding like knee-jerk partisans when there’s common ground to be found. Put simply, going to the mat against a Jeb Bush-backed Education secretary because she supports school choice isn’t the type of battle that’s worthy of the larger fight.
The political game for the next two turbulent years: Democrats need to have more success picking off suburban House Republicans than Trump does in winning over red-state Senate Democrats. The bipartisan furor over Trump’s executive order on immigration shows that Democrats are winning the battle. But Democrats could easily squander their advantage if they remain cloistered in the ideological bubble.
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