Opinion

Michael A. Cohen

For Democrats, two wrongs could make a right

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer of N.Y., center, flanked by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., left, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., right, speaks about the nomination of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 29, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, flanked by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., left, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., right, speaks about the nomination of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch during a news conference.

For eight years — as Republicans obstructed practically every policy idea that came out of the Obama White House — Democrats complained constantly that the GOP had become nothing more than the party of “no.”

Yet, two months into Donald Trump’s presidency, it’s clear that imitating that Republican approach is not just the sincerest form of flattery; it’s the Democrats’ best political strategy.

One rather unmistakable — and unfortunate — lesson from the Obama years is that obstructionism pays. The GOP’s broad congressional wins in 2010 and 2014 — and, to a lesser extent, Trump’s win in 2016 — were a direct result of their success at gumming up the works in Washington. Congress accomplished little, and Republicans reaped the benefits of popular anger at Washington.

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The same phenomenon is likely to unfold over the next two years. Incumbent parties tend to fare badly in midterm elections, but with Democrats mobilized, Republicans depressed, and the president historically unpopular, the chances of a wave election for Democrats are steadily rising. All the more reason, it would seem, to block Trump’s agenda.

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But for Democrats this is not just about making Washington dysfunctional. Trump was elected, in part, on the idea that he would come to Washington, shake things up, and get stuff done. Leaving him bereft of policy victories not only emboldens Democrats, it depresses his supporters. Indeed, perhaps the most consequential outcome of the GOP’s health care debacle is that it could fundamentally tarnish Trump’s image, even among his most strident supporters. It becomes a lot harder to look past his crude and bizarre behavior when he’s not getting anything done.

The flip side of this strategy is that it further riles up the liberal and progressive grass roots, who already despise Trump and want Democrats in Washington to “resist” him. There are a host of Democratic senators running for reelection in red states — and their natural political inclination will be to appear bipartisan. But with Trump so unpopular, and with anger at Washington at such heightened levels, why risk upsetting Democratic partisans for the Pyrrhic victory of appearing conciliatory?

Considering how bad so many of Trump’s ideas actually are, Democrats stand to benefit far more from blocking these largely unpopular efforts than in trying to get them across the congressional finish line.

Since Trump has no ideological core, it’s always possible that he would be open to legislative compromises that appeal to Democrats. Putting aside the fact that it’s very hard to imagine a deal cut by Trump and, say, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, would pass muster in the House, what’s in it politically for Democrats? Legislative compromises will normalize Trump and, in turn, will alienate the Democratic base. Ultimately, if Democrats want to hit the jackpot in the 2018 midterm elections, they need to rally their base — making deals with Trump, even good ones, doesn’t further that goal.

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To be sure, Democrats don’t need much help in making Republican-controlled Washington look dysfunctional. Even with the largest GOP House majority in 89 years, Republicans couldn’t even get a vote on a bill to repeal Obamacare. If forced to rely exclusively on Republican votes in the herculean task of reforming the tax system or passing an infrastructure bill — with the threat of a Democratic filibuster in the Senate looming — what reason is there to believe that the GOP will succeed? Democrats can talk a big game about bipartisanship and reaching across the aisle. They can and should lay out an alternative domestic policy agenda. But in today’s hyperpartisan political environment, a strategy of watching the other side dig bigger holes will probably bring a greater political return.

A federal government that is incapable of dealing with serious national challenges is a bad outcome for every American. It means that problems like crumbling and dangerous infrastructure, underperforming schools, inadequate job creation, a tattered social welfare safety net, the lack of resilience in the face of an ever-warming planet, and rising income inequality get worse. It also means that America will continue to slip further behind other advanced liberal democracies.

Moreover, from an ideological perspective this approach goes against everything Democrats believe. It increases popular contempt toward Washington and feeds the conservative narrative of the federal government being dysfunctional and ineffective.

It’s fair to say that stopping Trump and the GOP’s awful policy ideas is good for America, even if the way it’s done is bad for America. But there’s also no ignoring the fact that that is what hyperpartisanship in America has wrought.

It’s not often in life that two wrongs make a right, but for Democrats who cursed Republican obstructionism during the Obama years, it’s their roadmap out of the political wilderness. Let’s just hope the country survives it.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.