WASHINGTON — News broke by the second. The nightly TV upended programming. The White House press secretary briefed reporters in the dark by the West Wing shrubbery. Russian photographers outwitted the White House and ended up filing dispatches from the Oval Office.
In a string of tumultuous weeks in the Trump administration, the week that FBI Director James Comey was fired by the president of the United States for investigating his own campaign was by far the most bizarre and, for many, the most alarming.
As the White House swirled with conflicting narratives on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Democrats, who are in the minority in both chambers of Congress, tried to focus their fury and marshal all their muscle.
The result? The party’s Senate leaders invoked an obscure parliamentary rule that bars committee meetings after the Senate has been in session for two hours — unless all 100 senators agree. It meant several hearings were postponed.
That’ll show ’em.
The response by the opposition party, more a cup of weak tea than a double-espresso call to arms, was a vivid reminder of the power shortage among Democrats, who currently lack leaders who can speak credibly for the entire party and present a forceful counterweight to President Trump. Much of this relates to their disastrous setbacks of 2016, with Hillary Clinton losing the presidential race and the party failing to gain control of the Senate.
The minority party cannot control the congressional agenda, lacks subpoena power, and can’t drive the direction of House and Senate investigative hearings. High dudgeon on “Face the Nation” or the Senate floor only gets you so far.
“There’s no person head and shoulders above other Democrats right now,” said Dick Harpootlian, a former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. “If you look to Congress . . . there’s nobody there who is really generating any enthusiasm or excitement on opposing Trump.
“I don’t see anyone out there beating the drum in a way that resonates.”
If anything, last week’s dismissal of Comey, Trump’s crisis of credibility, and the tepid responses from Democrats may have given the country more cause to wonder if either party is up to the demands and needs of this political moment.
Certainly, GOP leaders don’t seem about to stand up to Trump when their adversaries can’t or won’t. Even though the president acknowledged in an NBC interview that he fired the FBI director because he objected to the investigation into his campaign’s possible collusion in Russia’s election, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan have resisted calls for an independent commission or special counsel to investigate.
With partisan divisions wider than ever, there are few voices in the middle who can or will speak to the frustration of most Americans. Instead, electoral warfare dictates the message.
Recent fund-raising e-mails from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee arrived with the following subject lines: “NO ONE saw this coming” “this is a disaster” and “U-N-B-E-L-I-E-V-A-B-L-E.” And these overheated messages all arrived before the news dropped about Trump firing Comey.
Harpootlian noted that in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, Americans picked a president from far outside the Washington quagmire: President Jimmy Carter, a Georgia Democrat.
“There is somebody out there who will come out of this morass in four years or sooner,” Harpootlian predicted.
Democrats know they need to get busy building a bench. Their numbers in state legislatures have reached historic lows. They hold 16 governor’s offices.
Yet in 2018 in Washington, the number that matters most is 24. That is how many seats Democrats need to gain to recapture control of the House of Representatives (the Senate is rated out of reach, for now). And when it comes to district-by-district campaign tactics, the absence of a strong national Democratic leader may not matter that much.
“One of the oldest rules in politics is when your opponent is killing themselves, don’t get in the way,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who helped engineer Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. “They are digging their own grave. Let them keep digging.”
A Quinnipiac University poll released May 10 has Trump’s job approval rating at 38 percent, a near-record low for the president. Should those kinds of numbers persist, Devine and other Democrats predict a wave election that will sweep them into the House majority.
After Republicans voted 10 days ago to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care plan, the political handicapper Cook Political Report shifted its rating of likely victors in 20 House districts — all in favor of Democrats.
“Pressure has to come from the states and outside D.C., and we are seeing a ton of that around the fight against the Republican health care plan and for a special prosecutor,” said Mindy Myers, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “With enough public outcry, Congress cannot ignore [it].’’
But Democrats still have yet to fully reckon with their party’s shocking 2016 defeat. Party operatives and lawmakers still point to Clinton’s popular vote win as evidence of the party’s underlying national appeal. Clinton herself gave a recent interview in which she blamed Comey’s October public statement on the e-mail investigation for the presidential result, a view that gives short shrift to Democrats’ profound failures in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, where working-class voters turned on the party.
Republicans, after taking an electoral pounding in 2012, Obama’s reelection year, took a hard look at what led to their losses.
And while they may not have followed the recommendations from their 97-page campaign autopsy report — it called for greater outreach to women, immigrants, and minorities, among other things — they at least examined the cadaver.
Democrats will huddle this week in Washington at an “ideas conference” sponsored by the left-leaning Center for American Progress. It will feature some of the names that generate the most enthusiasm from the party’s base, including Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Kamala Harris of California.
But the venue for the conference speaks volumes. At a time when many are calling for more Democratic outreach to the working class, the gathering will take place at The Four Seasons Hotel. The party still looks to be reaching inward, rallying its base of activists, insiders, and wealthy donors, but unready to broaden its reach — and effectively take on Trump.