For two months, the most fraught presidential transition in modern American history has been only a trailer for the not-ready-for-prime-time spectacle that premieres next Friday. According to a recent Quinnipiac poll, Donald Trump will enter the White House with an unfavorability rating of 51 percent, making him the most unpopular man ever elected president.
With no time to spare, Democrats look like they’re finally ready to stop being polite and start getting real.
On the second day of Jeff Sessions’ confirmation hearing, Georgia Representative John Lewis, the moral conscience of the Democratic Party, expressed why the Alabama senator nominated for attorney general is unfit to uphold this nation’s laws, especially considering his woeful record on civil rights. “Those who are committed to equal justice in our society wonder whether Senator Sessions’ call for law and order will mean today what it meant in Alabama when I was coming up back then,” said Lewis, a lion of the civil rights movement who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and grew up at the height of the Jim Crow era. “It doesn’t matter how Senator Sessions may smile, how friendly he may be, how he may speak to you. We need someone who will stand up and speak out for the people who need help.”
Lewis was one of three members of the Congressional Black Caucus, along with New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and caucus chairman Louisiana Representative Cedric Richmond, to testify against Sessions. Richmond also chided the Senate Judiciary Committee for making them wait until the end of the hearing to speak. He called it “a petty strategy” and “the equivalent of being made to go to the back of the bus.”
It was a sharp rebuke, a glimpse that some Democrats have stripped off the gloves. On the first day of the hearings, Minnesota Senator Al Franken took Sessions to task for his tacit agreement with Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and “scapegoating” of immigrants. Gone was the senatorial chumminess that can characterize these meetings. There were similar verbal fisticuffs when New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez grilled former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick for secretary of state, on his ties to Russia and Vladimir Putin.
This is not, as some on the right claim, a choreographed bit of political theater, or the attention-getting death rattle of a defeated party. While Democrats lost control of the White House, it should be clear to Trump and the party he now leads that the opposition has not capitulated.
Perhaps the Democrats, who can be self-defeating, have taken a page, or an entire volume, from the other side of the aisle, where recalcitrance became a hallmark for the past eight years. “No” is a potent word, and the GOP made it a rally cry — no to even modest improvements in gun control; no to filling the Supreme Court vacancy created by Antonin Scalia’s death; no to anything that might move this nation toward becoming a more perfect union, a dream deferred for more than two centuries.
Democrats must now become the party of no, but it won’t be an easy task. They control neither the House nor Senate, making the math tricky for anti-Trump obstructionism. Meanwhile, Trump and the GOP are moving quickly. He announced his intention to name a Supreme Court nominee two weeks after his inauguration. And the Senate voted along party lines and took a first decisive step toward repealing the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — and stripping millions of health care coverage. Never mind that Republicans have nothing to replace it.
This underlines why Democrats must push back hard and be, to use the title of an old gospel song, “No Ways Tired.” With lives at stake, they cannot acquiesce or allow Trump to go unchallenged. They can’t worry about social media diatribes branding them as crybabies, sore losers, or snowflakes. In the ongoing confirmation hearings, Democrats can craft an opposition blueprint for the next four years, sowing doubt about the incoming president’s decisions, and upending his agenda. If not, Trump could become a two-term president, and Democrats will have no one to blame but themselves.Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.