A Chaotic Presidency Could Realign the Parties

Democrats have a rare opportunity to build an anti-Trump alliance with some Republicans—if they don’t drive them away with their own partisanship.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Rep. Brenda Lawrence, and other members of Congress hold small candles aloft in front of the Supreme Court during a news conference on Monday about President Trump's executive orders.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Jan. 31, 2017, 11:51 a.m.

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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