Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

The Democrats Are Losers

Democrats in Congress fail, again, to deliver for an active, energized base.

About one year ago, an estimated 4.2 million people participated in the Women’s March, which is thought to have been the largest demonstration in American history—several times larger than the massive protests of the Vietnam War Moratorium of 1969. By the end of 2017, thousands of anti-Trump protests across the country brought a total of between 5.2 million and 8 million people to the streets. This past weekend’s marches again brought out hundreds of thousands of participants. These protests are only the most visible manifestations of broad and seething discontent with our president and those advancing his agenda in Washington, discontent that has also encouraged tens of thousands of people to consider running for office and prompted hundreds of thousands of phone calls to Congress last year from those hoping to defeat the repeal of Obamacare, one of the key items on the president’s legislative agenda.

Through all of this, the Democratic Party has exhibited little of the confidence and daring one would expect from a party on the right side of what may well be an unprecedented movement in the history of American politics. Monday was no different. “After several discussions, offers, counteroffers, the Republican leader and I have come to an arrangement,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the ranking Democrat in Washington, announced this morning. “We will vote today to reopen the government to continue negotiating a global agreement with the commitment that if an agreement isn’t reached by February the 8th, the Senate will immediately proceed to consideration of legislation dealing with DACA.”

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So ended, in Schumer’s words, the “Trump shutdown.” This moniker is a not insignificant bit of obfuscation on the Democrats’ part. It is of course true, as Schumer and others have said over and over again, that the Republican Party has the presidency, the House, and the Senate, making the shutdown the first to occur with ostensible one-party control of government. It is also true that moving forward on a funding bill required 60 votes in the Senate that the Republican Party did not have, even with the support of vulnerable shutdown-wary Democrats. The vast majority of Senate Democrats, who did not lend them that support, are responsible for the shutdown. Those Democrats have spent the past three days blaming it on Republican procedural incompetence rather than making a straightforward, honest case to the American people that the shutdown’s true purpose—securing a DACA deal—was worth it. “It’s the president’s and congressional Republicans’ responsibility to govern,” Schumer said in a speech Saturday. “It’s their responsibility to keep the doors open and the lights on around here.” The word for this is cowardice.

Luckily for Democrats, polls repeatedly showed that the American people backed their framing. A Public Policy Polling/Center for American Progress poll released Sunday found that 52 percent of Americans blamed President Trump and Republicans for the shutdown. It also found that 58 percent of Americans wanted to include Dreamers as part of a package deal to reopen the government. Forty-two percent of Americans, the poll says, would have strongly supported this.

The deal Democrats agreed to instead amounted to not much more than they were offered by the Republicans immediately before the shutdown: an extension of government funds until Feb. 8, a six-year extension of the needlessly beleaguered CHIP program, and a pinky promise from Mitch McConnell that a vote on a DACA fix will be held before the latest round of government funding expires. That assurance from McConnell was evidently solid enough to win over Democrats who, exactly a year ago, were moaning endlessly about his theft of Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court seat. Even assuming clean, pure, and virginal intent on McConnell’s part, it is not at all certain that the House will even take up a DACA fix not attached to a must-pass spending bill. This was, really, the point of the shutdown, which, after just three days of dithering from Democrats and nauseating lectures from Republicans about the harms of “manufactured” crises, is already over.

There may well be another shutdown in the coming weeks. But an opportunity was blown Monday. In 2013, the last shutdown, triggered by Republicans demanding the delayed implementation of Obamacare and spending cuts, lasted over two weeks. Since 1990, shutdowns have lasted, on average, 11 days. What might a competent party have done with that time? The shutdown was perhaps the first action by congressional Democrats that can properly be called “resistance.” In an act more significant than simply voting against nominees or bills in routine procedure, they briefly called government under this deeply, widely, and justifiably reviled administration to a halt. They could have, over the course of two weeks or so, taken a moral stand for a moral immigration policy—pushing until the bitter end for a clean DACA solution and proclaiming, with high rhetoric and theater, that all of our nation’s immigrants are worth fighting for. Substantively, this intransigence might have extracted concessions. Or it might not have. Either way, the Democrats would have both lifted the morale of the DACA enrollees who’ve been kicked around by this process and galvanized an activist base eager to see its representatives match their outrage and energy.

Then again, it’s plausible that a drawn-out showdown would have been purely depressing—treating us to more indignities like Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez, perhaps the most outspoken immigration advocate in Congress, conceding funding for the wall in desperation. This is where we’re at. A project that will be either dubious or outright laughable in implementation—publicly called a symbol of pig-headed xenophobia and bigotry by nearly all prominent Democrats at the beginning of this administration—will very probably be funded at the end of all this with their support, if a deal is ultimately passed. The largest changes to the legal immigration system in decades, proposals that would have been called far-right a year ago, have also been put on the table by the Democratic Minority Whip, Dick Durbin, who on Monday called DACA “the civil rights issue of our time.” If that is so, then it is fitting that this civil rights issue, like others past, will likely be resolved with a slimy compromise to be challenged by activists who are none too pleased. “Dems failed to fight & use their leverage to protect immigrant youth,” United We Dream co-founder Cristina Jimenez tweeted. “A false promise to vote on immigration from Rs is not a strategy to win. We won’t be fooled.”

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This is the voice of the Democratic Party to come. Leaders like Schumer and Durbin might not realize it, but the people most likely to be the party’s standard-bearers in 2020 clearly do. Every top-tier contender in the Senate—Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren—voted against Monday’s resolution. There’s some hope for the near-future in that. But for now, in the present and a year into the Trump administration, the only thing more astonishing than the man in the White House and the demands he’s made on our national conscience is the fecklessness of the party opposing him.

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