Schumer Must Play Hardball And Ally With The Grassroots

He must help his party break with the past and join with grassroots activists across America to embrace a truly progressive populist course that starkly contrasts with Trump's already-broken promises to working Americans.
01/30/2017 10:03 pm ET Updated Jan 31, 2018

As the Donald Trump-Steve Bannon shock and awe campaign moves through its second week, it's clear that it will take the determined efforts of millions of Americans to resist and repel the ugly new regime. Fortunately, a strong new anti-Trump resistance is growing, and even some Trump voters are already regretting their support.

But one American has the greatest responsibility in this struggle: Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer (NY).  And to succeed, he must take his inspiration from rivals -- his Republican counterpart Mitch McConnell (KY) and the conservative Tea Party. With Trump planning to announce a Supreme Court pick Tuesday night, Schumer must start playing hardball right now.

In October 2010, after nearly two years of Democratic control of the White House and both houses of Congress, Senate Republican leader McConnell offered this famous articulation of his top goal: "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."

McConnell, of course, failed to achieve that goal. But after the GOP gained control of the House in the 2010 election and then the Senate in 2014, aided by an influx of corporate money and the power of the nascent Tea Party movement, McConnell and the Republicans were able to turn his obstructionist attitude into political stalemate, blocking virtually all meaningful legislation proposed by the White House. McConnell's Senate also stalled scores of Obama appointees and court nominees, and refused to act on Obama's Supreme Court pick Merrick Garland, a judicial moderate.

Back then, Democrats charged McConnell with putting partisanship above the national interest. But in the urgent circumstances posed by the presidency of Donald Trump, Senator Schumer must now embrace the McConnell playbook.

Schumer should eye Trump as McConnell viewed Obama in 2010: "If he's willing to meet us halfway on some of the biggest issues, it's not inappropriate for us to do business with him." But where Trump is extreme and unconscionable, as he has been since inauguration day, Schumer and the Democrats must get tough and relentlessly resist.

In order to successfully thwart Trump's hard-right agenda, however, Schumer must do one more thing: He must help his party break with the past and join with grassroots activists across America to embrace a truly progressive populist course that starkly contrasts with Trump's already-broken promises to working Americans.

President Trump already has made clear he will be just like candidate Trump: erratic, divisive, irresponsible. Trump's childish, phony claims about his inaugural crowd size and voter fraud were just an opening distraction. Much more serious is Trump's chaotic, bigoted immigration order, which weakens America's commitment to the law and to human rights, endangers of the lives of good people, and undermines the fight against terrorism.

But while a wide range of Americans protest the Muslim ban, the Trump-Bannon assault is moving on so many other fronts, from attacks on the free press, to Trump's praise for torture, to his move to dump Obamacare with no replacement plan in sight, putting health care at risk for millions of people.

Trump's bizarre embrace of Vladimir Putin endangers our security, while his reckless rejection of efforts to protect against global warming and toxic pollution harms our very future.

And Trump's refusal to divest from his businesses, just as his companies leverage his new power in order to sell Trump-branded hotel rooms and club memberships, is turning our great democracy into a corrupt kleptocracy.

Meanwhile, congressional Republicans are now abandoning whatever principles and consciences they had to fall in line behind Trump, whose hold over the GOP base they fear, and who has agreed to work with them for the things they really want: tax cuts for the wealthy and dismantlement of the health, safety, consumer, and environmental rules that displease the GOP's big corporate donors.

Schumer and the Democrats have every right, and responsibility, to block the Trump-GOP destructive agenda, and to fight hard against Trump nominees. Conservative but qualified cabinet picks like Nikki Haley may merit approval. But Democrats should keep fighting hard against more troubling nominees, like Tom Price, Rex Tillerson, Jeff Sessions, Betsy DeVos, Steve Mnuchin, and Scott Pruitt -- educating the public even if they lose on party-line votes.

Senators should use the procedural maneuver called withholding consent to delay a range of GOP efforts. And when it comes to the Supreme Court seat, and to many pieces of legislation, Senate Democrats retain the power of the filibuster: Sixty votes are needed for action, and there are only 52 Senate Republicans.

Schumer already has said Democrats will fight against any Supreme Court nominee "outside of the mainstream," and that's a good start. But hardball means getting tougher. McConnell thought American would do fine with eight justices. Unless Trump picks Garland or someone whose views are in the near vicinity of Garland's, Schumer should work to block confirmation.

That three Democratic senators, plus independent Angus King (ME), tonight voted to move ahead with a vote on the nomination of Tillerson, who in his hearing demonstrated little knowledge of foreign policy, refused to answer questions about his 41-year tenure at Exxon, and gave untruthful answers about Exxon's lobbying on Russia sanctions, shows that Schumer isn't pushing hard enough yet.

Efforts by Schumer and the Democrats can be successful only if they are backed up by, and in sync with, determined grassroots resistance all across the country -- a genuine progressive tea party that organizes locally as well as online, challenges lawmakers at every town hall meeting, and relentlessly rings their office telephones. The powerful protests of the past two weekends suggest that such a movement could soon emerge.

The Democrats need to harness the powerful desire of citizens, made clear in last year's election, for fundamental change and an end to the domination of politics by corporate elites. Many voters, right and left, blamed Hillary Clinton's Democrats for losing touch with working people. If they want to return to relevance, Democratic leaders need to truly divorce themselves from predatory Wall Street actors and their Washington lobbyists and become genuine populist champions.

Congressional Democrats should embrace a strong progressive agenda: good jobs and wages, investment in career training, infrastructure, and clean energy, fair trade, civil rights and voting rights. They also need to demand accountability for those Wall Street banks, payday lenders, pharmaceutical makers, cable companies, scam for-profit colleges, and others that perpetrate consumer and financial fraud -- even as those industries continue to hire Democratic lobbyists to press lawmakers at cocktail parties. Schumer and the Democrats must stand firmly against the big money corruption of our politics -- not just say it, but mean it.

A firm populist stance by Democrats need not and should not preclude the building of a strong alliance involving business leaders and other prominent Americans to stand up to the Trump Administration's disturbing assault on constitutional freedoms and its reckless foreign policy.

But a populist approach by the Democrats will create a sharp contrast with this president. Candidate Trump promised to fight for the forgotten man and woman, but he's already forgotten them, picking anti-worker CEO Andrew Puzder as Labor Secretary, suspending a mortgage rate cut for homeowners, and advancing other plans to hurt middle class families. He promised to stand up against Goldman Sachs, and to drain the corrupt Washington swamp, but he already has undermined these pledges, stocking his administration with billionaires, former Goldman Sachs executives, and Washington lobbyists tied to big corporations, and building bonds with Exxon Mobil, Sheldon Adelson, and the Koch brothers.

With a few exceptions, notably on trade and immigration, Trump's policy agenda is McConnell's, a country club Republican approach that elevates the special interests of GOP corporate donors over those of U.S. workers and consumers.

The challenge for Democrats is to expose Trump as the cynical enemy of working people.  They can't do it unless they shed their own heavy corporate baggage. Otherwise the resistance will have no soul, no energy, and no chance to win. If congressional Democrats don't learn this lesson, they may face strong progressive challengers next election.

If Trump changes course and decides to deal on positive actions like creating jobs, increasing wages, and improving health care, Schumer and the Democrats might be able to work with him. But whether Trump has any capacity for cooperation is already in doubt, and Trump's conduct this month -- he has called  Schumer the Democrats "head clown" and today mocked Schumer for shedding tears while speaking to constituents about the Muslim ban -- suggest all he wants from Schumer is the chance to bully him.

Schumer and the Democrats should join in a fierce populist resistance. And make Trump a one-term president.

This article also appears on Republic Report