The Democrats Are Not an Opposition Party

Photo: J. Scott Applewhite (AP)

Donald Trump’s approval numbers are on the rise, to the point where, according to one analysis, he would have majority support in enough states to carry the Electoral College if the 2020 election were held today. This is happening despite the fact that Trump’s immigration policy continues to garner headlines for its cruel and inhumane treatment of migrants, despite the fact that Trump himself is a huge criminal accused of attempting to obstruct justice over and over again, and despite the fact that few people particularly like Trump as a human being at all.

Trump came into office as a deeply unpopular president who got elected on the back of an archaic system that values land over people, and over the last two and a half years, he has continued to do things that people hate at an almost breakneck speed. While the caveat applies that it’s still well over a year out from the general election, that Trump’s standing with the public could very well be on the rise means that something is fundamentally wrong with the approach of the Democratic Party, which, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is ostensibly supposed to be Trump’s counterweight. The problem with that approach is that the Democrats are not a functioning opposition party.

Consider that just days after the Associated Press published the brutal photograph of a man and his small daughter dead on the bank of the Rio Grande, House Democrats banded together with Republicans to pass the Senate version of a border bill—which a majority of Senate Democrats, led by their even more feckless leader Chuck Schumer, overwhelmingly supported. The bill didn’t reduce funding for ICE, barely restricted how the Trump administration could use the money, and didn’t set hard standards for the care of children in government custody, among other things.

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While the defeat on that bill was initiated by the right wing of the Democratic caucus—an illuminating example of why it’s not enough to just elect people with (D) next to their name on the ballotPelosi’s capitulation to the likes of alleged car fighter Josh Gottheimer was just another in a series of a long line of surrenders. At this point, Pelosi has all but conceded that Trump can do whatever he wants, as evidenced by the fact that she’s fighting the left’s push for an impeachment inquiry seemingly just as hard as he is. When writer E. Jean Carroll came forward last month and accused Trump of raping her in a department store in the 1990s, Pelosi virtually ignored it, saying she hasn’t “paid much attention to it.” The Speaker of the House hasn’t paid much attention to a rape allegation made against the President of the United States. Got it.

Because she has all this free time that would otherwise be used for attempting to limit Trump’s political capital and power even a tiny bit, Pelosi is choosing instead to stress her disdain for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive Democrats to any reporter within earshot. In a revealing interview with New York Times hack Maureen Dowd, Pelosi denounced Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley—four left-wing women of color whose forceful intervention in the fight around immigrant detention completely changed the national debate—as having “their public whatever and their Twitter world, but they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.” Pelosi said this just days after she, herself, was humiliated by the right wing of her caucus. (In the same interview, Pelosi said Trump “may have” told her, “I’m glad you’re not doing this impeachment because there’s nothing there,” before quickly reassuring Dowd that the comment “means nothing to me.”)

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The fact is that the Democratic leadership is less concerned with keeping Trump’s power in check—and with winning elections and power and using that power for good—than it is with beating back internal challenges to its power from the left. And while Schumer is the worse of the two by a country mile, Pelosi is the one who actually holds a significant amount of power, which makes these defeats even more crushing and helps Trump look like he has some vague idea of what he’s doing.

Pelosi could acknowledge that the method by which the Democrats try to win elections—recruiting the most right-wing candidates in every swing district and then just hoping they ride a wave election, until they’re swept out a few years later—is not just fundamentally broken, but an active impediment to progress. Pelosi could acknowledge that the best way to beat Trump isn’t to work with him on infrastructure giveaways to private capital or alarmingly weak compromises on prescription drug prices, but to fight him tooth and nail every step of the way, as the Republicans did to Obama to great success. Pelosi could acknowledge that the left could be a partner in a winning coalition, rather than an impediment to its success.

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Pelosi and the Democrats will acknowledge none of these things. They are terrified of the right, particularly an enthusiastic right, and can’t possibly imagine a world in which an enthusiastic opposition to Trump is an asset, even though that’s exactly how they won control of the House last year. Whether the Democrats know how to be an opposition party or if they don’t want to be one is irrelevant. As it stands, they are not much of anything.

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