Feb. 17, 2017
WASHINGTON — Nearly a month into the Trump presidency, a whirlwind of presidential tweets, executive orders and White House controversies have all but swamped House Democrats and their leader, Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, in their ability to respond effectively.
Even scandals struggle for air time. Only the most shocking break through the din, such as the hawking of Trump daughter Ivanka’s merchandise from the White House press briefing room, or the fallout from the resignation of national security adviser Michael Flynn over his contacts with the Russian government.
Others, such as first lady Melania Trump’s libel suit claiming $150 million in damages for harming her ability to cash in on her newfound role, last for a day or so before getting overtaken by other news. And there are other controversies, like a memo reportedly drafted by Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly that indicated the Trump administration was considering using up to 100,000 National Guard troops to round up undocumented immigrants, reported by the Associated Press on Friday and promptly knocked down by the White House as false.
Democrats are trying everything “short of being like Buddhist monks and lighting ourselves on fire in front of the Capitol,” said Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord.
Still, nothing has galvanized Democrats like President Trump. They are borrowing Tea Party strategies to harness voter anger. And as Trump’s performance emboldens the party’s progressive wing, House Democrats from the Bay Area are pushing a new economic message based on California’s growth model.
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 16: U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) (2nd L), Chair of Congressional Hispanic Caucus, House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (R), House Minoriy Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) (L) and other House Democrats listen during a news conference February 16, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. House Democrats held a news conference to express their frustration after their meeting with ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan on the recent ICE raids. Alex Wong/Getty Images
“We need a bold, visionary message on the economy,” said Ro Khanna, a freshman Democrat from San Jose. For his part, Khanna said he is urging colleagues to tap into the “big thinkers” among progressive economists to learn “how to rewrite the rules of modern capitalism, which have favored concentrated economic power at the expense of ordinary Americans.”
By shattering the rules of political combat and escalating his attacks on the integrity of the judiciary, the media and other democratic institutions, Trump, they say, has pushed boilerplate partisan opposition into genuine alarm.
“This is how fascism starts,” said former East Bay Rep. Ellen Tauscher, a Democrat who served as undersecretary of state for arms control in the Obama administration. “You question the truth. You degrade people’s ability to understand what is real and not real. You destroy institutions that people depend on. You get people to question everything. And part of it is to get people completely exhausted to the point where they start to ignore things. They can’t keep track of the one snowflake they’re supposed to pay attention to, because they’re in a blizzard.
“That’s how you get people to become inactive, and that’s what they want.”
Democrats’ objective is to recapture the House in 2018. For that, they need a net gain of 24 seats, a steep climb — especially in a gerrymandered body. But with Republicans in control of the White House and Congress, House Democrats have almost no power. They cannot hold hearings, set the legislative agenda or even block bills without ample GOP support. Their own bills seldom see the light of day.
Yet, even if all they have is a microphone, “You’ve got to fight. It’s all you can do,” said Maryland’s Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, as he exited a news conference Pelosi held Tuesday to respond to the Flynn scandal. “If you don't give any pushback, you won’t have a democracy.
“Where it’ll lead, we don't know, but you’ve got to push back.”
Every day, the president’s morning tweets set the day’s news cycle. Whether they distract from a White House stumble or stomp on Trump’s own message, they attract attention. In response to blistering news coverage this week of potentially wider Russian links to his administration and campaign, Trump blasted out a tweetstorm shifting the focus to the source of the leaks rather than the substance of the allegations.
“His tweets are strategic,” said George Lakoff, a professor emeritus of cognitive linguistics at UC Berkeley.
Pelosi and her party are well aware of Trump’s diversionary tactics, and they have attempted to redirect attention to more favorable political turf, such as the benefits of the Affordable Care Act or Russian meddling in the election. Pelosi is “keeping us focused,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Dublin.
Fighting the president on his own turf would be a waste of time, Swalwell said. “As soon as you put heat on him, he moves the pot to a different burner,” he said.
Pelosi, who has said she and Democrats “will fight this administration, every day with every fiber of our being,” is fighting hard against GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Polls show the health care law is growing in popularity, as Republicans struggle to come up with a replacement. She has also adopted what she called a “roots-up strategy” to encourage action from the rank and file.
DeSaulnier has begun holding meetings across the country with a handful of House colleagues, including some from the Midwest, to listen to Rust Belt voters. He is also tapping university research on labor market changes and developing what he calls “a concrete legislative action plan” to reach working-class voters who back Trump.
“In California we’ve learned a lot” about how to achieve high economic growth in tandem with strong worker and environmental rules, DeSaulnier said. “It’s undeniable that we do the things in the Bay Area that progressives believe in, and it’s benefiting our economy.” He described his effort to spread those ideas “sort of my life’s work right now.”
Khanna plans a March 13 trip to Appalachia to help announce a program created under an Obama initiative for new software jobs for the “sons and daughters of coal miners.”
Pointing to Bernie Sanders’ presidential run, Khanna said the party’s energy lies now in its populist wing, which he believes can offer a forward-looking alternative to what he calls Trump’s backward-looking populism, captured in his “Make America Great Again” slogan.
With the 2018 elections in mind, Khanna said he also wants his party to run on a platform to expand Social Security, provide “debt-free college” and “Medicare for all” — the opposite of where the GOP stands on social programs.
“It’s better to run on a vision and a bold agenda, and make us the party of economic populism but also the party of the future,” Khanna said.
Democrats say they were fortified by the Women’s March on Washington last month and other protests since Trump took office.
“What Democrats have to do is listen to this incredible grass-roots movement shaping up all over the country organically,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael. “These are our people and communities. They’re engaged like never before. They are going to lead us in ways it will be important to follow.”
Drawing on Tea Party strategies, a group of former Democratic congressional staff developed an online guide called “Indivisible” to show liberals how to organize an effective resistance to the congressional Republicans who provide vital backing for the White House.
These have already paid off in GOP town hall meetings, where angry constituents have rattled lawmakers.
“That stuff they’re doing at town hall meetings couldn’t be better,” Cummings said.
Midterm elections such as 2018 favor opposition parties, which makes House Democrats “well positioned” as a fulcrum of the Trump resistance, said Theda Skocpol, a Harvard University sociologist.
“That’s the place where Democrats will be able to make gains, if they can pick up support from a broader array of people,” Skocpol said. “That and the governors races are the really critical turning points.”
Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead