WASHINGTON — At congressional town hall meetings, on the patchy grass of the National Mall, and in the flood of comments posted on Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Facebook page, it seems painfully obvious: Liberals are getting energized and exercised.
They have found a rallying cry in opposing President Trump’s policies on immigration, health care, and just about everything else that comes across his Twitter feed.
But a more subtle conversation is taking place among Democrats — particularly those in the Rust Belt states that lifted Trump to the presidency — who are feeling anxious about the tricky balancing act that lies ahead, between harnessing the base’s outrage and being devoured by it.
Their worry is that the party’s fired-up base, reacting to Trump, could push the party to the left when they have to figure out how to connect with the middle.
“I think the political strategy of the White House is to inflame the left and get us to maybe do and say things that make us look bad,” turning off independent and moderate voters, said Representative Tim Ryan, a Democrat from blue-collar Youngstown, Ohio. “That is a risk that is out there for us.”
Ryan in late November mounted a challenge to minority leader Nancy Pelosi to lead House Democrats, because he felt the party should radically rethink its strategy if it hoped to win back the many who abandoned the Democrats for Trump.
He lost, but nevertheless won support of nearly one-third of the House Democratic caucus and is now part of a group pushing party leaders to overhaul their economic message to resonate better with working-class folks. He points to his own home county, whose voters hadn’t picked a Republican presidential candidate in more than 40 years — until Trump.
Ryan said he believes Trump and his team have deliberately issued executive orders on polarizing issues such as immigration to spark outrage on the left.
“He’s playing with fire there because now our base is energized. The question is, can we present ourselves in a way that we’re not just anti-Trump?” Ryan said in an interview with the Globe. “What’s our vision for the country? How are we going to put people back to work? I think we really have to stay focused on that.”
It’s early yet, with Trump just three weeks into his presidency and Democrats still neck-deep in various post-mortems and soul-searching efforts. But the intensity of the anti-Trump feeling on the left has forced Democratic lawmakers to play catch-up with the suddenly mobilized rank and file.
Thousands of angry protesters descended on Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer’s Brooklyn apartment building to castigate the New York Democrat for approving too many of Trump’s Cabinet picks. Back in Washington, protesters interrupted Schumer with chants of “Do your job!” during a rally Democratic lawmakers held against Trump’s travel ban.
Even Warren, a liberal hero from Massachusetts, has felt the heat. Her decision late last month to vote to confirm neurosurgeon Ben Carson to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development drew intense criticism from her progressive fan base. She was forced to explain herself in a
Facebook post that opened with, “OK, let’s talk about Dr. Ben Carson.”
On the flip side, liberals spurred by the same anti-Trump fervor hailed her for denouncing Jeff Sessions, Trump’s new attorney general, on the Senate floor last week. The Senate Democrats’ campaign arm is currently raising funds off the incident, offering limited-edition stickers with the slogan “She persisted.”
The phrase became a rallying cry when majority leader Mitch McConnell said he was compelled to call a vote to formally rebuke Warren because she persisted in criticizing Sessions after several warnings.
Matt Bennett, cofounder of the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, said much of the new energy has been “very useful to Democrats” and will remain so as long as the energy remains firmly directed at Trump and Republicans, not other Democrats.
“For too long, it appeared that the only really activated core supporters in American politics were on the right,” Bennett said. “So all of this energy is excellent news.”
The risk is that these activists follow the next page of the Tea Party playbook and mount primary challenges to Democrats “they view as insufficiently pure,” he said, adding that “there’s no evidence that that’s going to happen.”
Bennett also said Democrats have some time to figure out what positive alternatives they will offer to Trump, an effort Third Way is jumping into with a $20 million project to help define a new Democratic vision. The group plans to talk with community leaders and voters around the country.
Bennett and others believe Democrats must work harder at promoting an affirmative vision. One lesson many Democrats took from their 2016 defeat is that they were too busy slamming Trump to offer voters a compelling vision of what their party would do for them.
Others see 2016 as just the starkest symptom of a much longer disconnect between Democrats and voters in the heartland.
Representative Brendan Boyle, a Democrat who represents part of Philadelphia and the city’s suburbs, says he finds himself spending more time than he would have thought replying to Trump’s tweets, but that’s just how outrageous and unhinged he has found the new president to be.
So he gets — and applauds — what drives the protesters in the street. “We absolutely have to fight back hard against Trump,” he said.
But the second-term representative believes resistance to Trump must be coupled with the articulation of “a clear vision and agenda for what would make our country better.”
His party, he said, has to figure out “what can truly address the anxieties of those sort of voters who were so hopeless that they said, ‘You know what? Even with all Trump’s craziness were going to give him a shot.’ ”
Earlier this month, Boyle helped launch a new group of House Democrats calling themselves the “Blue Collar Caucus,” whose 26 members will push for policy solutions addressing wage stagnation, offshoring of jobs, and other economic concerns of working-class voters.
In the Senate, the 2018 campaign map was always going to be tough for Democrats, with a whopping 25 lawmakers who caucus with Senate Democrats up for reelection. Then Hillary Clinton’s stunning loss last November underscored the party’s weakness with many voters living in between the nation’s bright-blue coasts.
Ten Senate Democrats running for reelection in 2018 hail from states Trump won. Among those seen as most exposed are Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, and Jon Tester of Montana.
Republicans and their allies are already seeking to use the left’s push to obstruct Trump’s agenda against these at-risk senators.
A nationwide TV ad supporting Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, opened with footage of actress Ashley Judd yelling into a microphone at the Women’s March and a burning limousine trashed by protesters at Trump’s inauguration, before switching to a shot of Warren speaking at the Women’s March in Boston.
“Why is the radical left so full of rage and hate? They still can’t accept that Trump won and they lost,” a narrator said in the ad from conservative group America Next, which spent more than $500,000 on the buy. “Now extreme liberals like Elizabeth Warren are trying to stop Betsy DeVos from becoming secretary of education.”
In the end, not a single Democrat voted for DeVos, who needed Vice President Mike Pence to cast a tie-breaking vote to win confirmation.
Another conservative group, the Judicial Crisis Network, recently announced plans to spend $10 million to pressure Democrats to support Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, focused again on vulnerable 2018 Democrats.
“We will force vulnerable senators up for reelection in 2018 like Joe Donnelly and Claire McCaskill to decide between keeping their Senate seats or following Chuck Schumer’s liberal, obstructionist agenda,” said Carrie Severino, the group’s chief counsel and policy director. The GOP’s Senate campaign arm is also targeting the same group of senators over Gorsuch.
For now, those Senate Democrats are forging their own versions of the middle path as best they can. Many are choosing to vote against many of Trump’s most controversial nominees. Manchin of West Virginia was the only Democrat to vote in favor of Sessions after a particularly bitter confirmation battle.
“An energized base is always better than a base that is not energized. And I would certainly characterize our base as energized right now,” said McCaskill, when asked about concerns that a surge from the left could hurt moderates like herself.
But the usually forthright former prosecutor has adopted a policy of not talking about Gorsuch to Capitol Hill reporters because of the tense politics at play.
“It’s so hot that I can’t be throwing out comments in the hallway,” she said.
Four of the five most embattled Democrats — Donnelly, Manchin, Heitkamp, and Tester — were on the guest list for a bipartisan meeting at the White House on Thursday, ostensibly about Gorsuch. A lot of other ground was covered, and several of the Democratic senators emerged to tout areas of potential compromise they’d discussed with the president.
“Let me just say it was refreshing to just have a dialogue with both Democrats and Republicans,” Manchin said after the meeting, talking with reporters in the driveway of the White House. “I am so encouraged to have this type of a meeting where we’re all invited to sit down and be open and honest.”
Heitkamp put out a press release after the lunchtime meeting detailing how she pushed for rural priorities in any infrastructure package Trump is considering and urged him to get the Export-Import Bank, stymied without a full board, up and running so it can help small businesses and workers in North Dakota.
“It’s great news he agreed,” she said, noting the president promised to nominate a board member “very soon.”
A few hours later, Heitkamp announced she would vote against Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, Georgia Representative Tom Price. She cited his support for policies that would privatize Medicare and cut Social Security, among others, and said 80 percent of her constituents who called or wrote urged her to vote against him.
“Simply, I’m very concerned Congressman Price will leave seniors, families, and rural health centers in the dust,” she said, “and stick North Dakota taxpayers and health providers with the tab.”Victoria McGrane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter@vgmac.