Democrats have gone all in on opposing Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees. On the surface such a plan seems to be benefiting the party. The base is excited, red-state Democrats are joining the cause and the Senate is getting bogged down in the bare knuckles brawl making it harder for Republicans to implement other parts of their agenda.
But, is it really benefiting Democrats? The obvious answer in the short-term is no. Take the case of Betsy Devos. Democrats went all in on defeating her and were able to convince two, moderate Republicans in rural states to support their bid. But, that resulted in a 50-50 split that allowed Mike Pence to break the tie.
Likewise, on down the list from Rex Tiller to Tom Price to Steve Mnuchin (and especially Jeff Sessions), Democrats have expressed almost lockstep opposition. Not attending committee meetings, whining about the rules being changed to allow a vote with just a quorum and making floor speeches personally attacking Senators have not stopped Democrats from losing these fights.
They will likely lose more. Democrats have promised a bitter floor fight for Steve Pruitt (head of the EPA). They have even promised to go after Mick Mulvaney, a straight shooting fiscal conservative who was nominated to be the head of the OMB.
Okay, well if Democrats are fighting all these nominees and losing they must be gaining something in the long-term, right? Maybe. They have successfully excited their base and on issues like education been able to merge union and minority preferences (they often hold divergent views on choice and public education).
But, we have to ask a few questions to assess whether this lock-step opposition is a viable long-term strategy. First, does it net Democrats anything in the 2018 midterms? Second, does it provide future Presidential candidates an outlet to showcase themselves? Lastly, does it advance Democratic priorities or goals?
The clear answer to the first question is a big, fat no. At least in the Senate. Democrats are defending 10 Senate seats in states Trump won. How it helps Democrats like McCaskill, Tester, Heitikamp and Donnelly to be in lockstep opposition to Trump I am not sure. Kudos have to be given to Joe Manchin who more often than not has sided with Trump on his cabinet nominees but shown an independent streak by opposing DeVos. Even in more marginal states like Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, lock-step opposition to Trump is not showing benefits, at least according to recent polls.
The House is a different story. Democrats recently released quite a list of seats they would like to target for 2018 (the NRCC just released a smaller but just as eyebrow raising list). Democrats are going after 23 seats Clinton won that a Republican represents in Congress and an additional 36 seats. Many of these seats are either in deeply red or lightly red suburban or rural territory. Here, Democrats might find success in opposing Trump, though, right now, the main opposition is occurring in the Senate (it stinks to be in the minority in the House compared to the Senate).
Admittedly, Democrats would need down-ballot Republicans to revolt against their party. Additionally, Democrats would have to hope that a no holds barred opposition would pay dividends like they assume it did for the GOP in 2010 (never-mind voters revolted against Obamacare, the Stimulus, Cash for Clunkers, Dodd-Frank and a study proves it).
Secondly, the answer is clear yes. But, this only comes from the Senate and gubernatorial side. Governor Jerry Brown in California and Mario Cuomo in NY State have telegraphed they will oppose the Trump administration in the states. On the Senate side, Elizabeth Warren is clearly using her floor speeches to incite the grassroots (just look at her Jeff Sessions demagoguery). Likewise, NY Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has used a more passive but no less effective approach by voting no on all of Trump’s nominees to signal her opposition. Whether this helps or hurts Democrats in four years is debatable but the party is showing off its bench (what’s left of it).
Lastly, it is unlikely very many Democratic policy priorities will be advanced. However, they could work with Trump on infrastructure. On tax cuts, defense spending and other issues the party is likely to see its priorities rolled back or ignored.
There is a hidden cost to Democratic intransigence that should be mentioned. The House is built on the majority rules principle which is why Nancy Pelosi bullied through so much legislation in 2009 and 2010 and why Republicans under Ryan have largely ignored Democratic concerns (it helps to have a 24 seat majority as well).
But, in the Senate, you have institutional rules that help the minority slow the will of the majority. Along with the smaller nature of the Senate, as a result, the Senate relies more on congeniality and compromise But, of late, this has become frayed. Democratic efforts to please their base might make those at the Daily Kos swoon but it is also leading to their ideas being marginalized. Indeed, you could argue fairly easily that GOP lock-step support for many Cabinet nominees is in reaction to Democratic opposition.
Also, the electoral motivation of such efforts must be evaluated. Democrats may believe it is winning strategy but few Trump states have a solid base of progressives for Democrats to draw from.
Take the case of the five states Senate Democrats represent that supported the Donald by double-digits. Not a single state has more than 22 percent of its voters identify as liberal (West Virginia) according to Gallup data. A better way to evaluate this would be to compare conservatives to liberals (Gallup does this for us). The numbers are striking and illustrated in the table below.
|State||% liberal||% conservative||Difference %
|Trump Margin of victory|
Numbers rounded depending on margin of victory
Now, of course, these measures are not perfect. For example, West Virginia has more self-identified liberals than Missouri but voted for Trump by 20 more points. Likewise, Florida has about/does have the same percent of conservatives as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania yet has voted far more Republican at the federal level. Still, this data gives us a good idea of just how risky the Democratic strategy is.
Because while you might excite your base you might also annoy conservatives. And you don’t have to annoy many of them in these states that causes a backlash that easily outpaces your base’s support.
So, the Democratic strategy could work. Or it could fail spectacularly. Judging from the data though, if it fails, Democrats will lose far more than they gain. Especially if they give Republicans a filibuster proof majority in the Senate.