Politics

Democrats Have Questions. Elizabeth Warren Has Answers.

The party's best communicator knows best.

Not shy.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

There are two questions that Democrats must resolve as they confront unified Republican control in Washington. Neither should be all that difficult.

The first is the much ballyhooed dilemma of identity politics versus class politics. It's true that Hillary Clinton ran a campaign -- "stronger together" -- that emphasized identity or, more accurately, identities. Her message was designed to contrast with Donald Trump's crude racial division, not his crude economic nationalism. Clinton's voluminous economic policies, which lacked a thematic frame, were lost in the effort to expose Trump as fundamentally unfit for office.

Trump always had the crisper, clearer message. His racial appeal and his economic appeal were conjoined. He implicitly promised to restore the status of whites, especially white men, atop both economic and social pyramids. And he promised to do so by any means necessary.  

Trump's victory didn't expose the weakness of identity politics; it showed its frightening dominion. He ran on it with a vengeance, and won. Still, Democrats will need better equilibrium between a message of racial inclusion and a message of economic inclusion. For pointers, they need only listen to their party's most skillful and class-conscious communicator, Senator Elizabeth Warren. She is a champion of those left out of the economic boom that has powered the upper-middle-class and super-rich to new heights. At the same time, she is a stalwart for social justice. She makes the balancing act look easy. Maybe it is.

Warren is also a good guide on the second, emerging, Democratic question: Cooperate with Trump or resist?

Barring an electoral debacle in 2018, Republicans' grip on the House is secure. Meanwhile, the 2018 Senate map is close to a worst-case scenario for Democrats, with incumbents seeking reelection in states such as Indiana and Missouri, which moved from red in 2012, to an even redder, Trumpier hue in 2016.

Senate Democrats from red states will want to accommodate Trump, who is already flirting with Democrats from North Dakota and West Virginia. Trump won the former by more than 30 points, the latter by more than 40. Republicans will structure key votes to elicit support from endangered Democratic senators, and give Republicans political cover. 

But Democrats shouldn't bite. North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp may have no chance at reelection. Or perhaps she's an outlier who can survive. Either way, her prospects improve if Trump is weak, and decline if he is strong and popular. Likewise, West Virginia loves Trump. But it elected a Democratic governor on the same day it gave Trump a landslide. Sometimes politics is curly.

There is a less selfish, more vital, reason to resist. Each Democratic vote that supports a piece of Trump's agenda also normalizes a dangerously abnormal administration. The GOP has surrendered to Trump's authoritarian parade. If Democrats do as well, American democracy, which for more than two centuries has been the leading symbol of democracy itself, will be grievously damaged. 

Warren makes some moderate Democrats uneasy. But she's the right woman to lead the resistance. She has the luxury of a safe seat, and she has the will to contest a historically unpopular president-elect who won with 46 percent of the vote, and a Republican congressional majority that is about to propose a radical agenda for which it has no buy-in from the American public. In a typically aggressive floor speech last week she said:

The American people didn’t give Democrats majority support so we could come back to Washington and play dead. They didn’t send us here to whimper, whine, or grovel.

The stakes of the battles ahead may make the cooperate-or-resist choice another relatively easy one. Speaker Paul Ryan intends to push through a radical retrenchment of the welfare state and huge tax cuts for the wealthy. Even Democrats who were open to a "grand bargain" between the parties on spending and revenue won't be eager to sign on to a wholesale dismantling of the social safety net -- especially one accompanied by another windfall for the luckiest and most successful.

Trump's campaign promised tax cuts for the rich. But many of his most ardent admirers will be surprised if Medicare, Medicaid and even Obamacare, which Trump promised to replace with something better, are gutted. In the not-at-all unlikely event that Republicans punt on many spending cuts, and opt to blow up the deficit with grossly unfunded tax cuts and spending, financial markets will howl, and Democrats will (again) decry GOP hypocrisy. But the nation's longstanding social contract, by which the fortunate subsidize the less fortunate, will survive, albeit in weakened shape. The cost, in the form of deficits, will be loaded on future taxpayers.

Democrats have two set arenas in which to highlight, and constrain, the GOP agenda. The first is Senate hearings to confirm Trump cabinet appointees, from whom they must secure commitments to democratic norms and the rule of law. Nominees should also be required to state whether the world is round or flat. For example, Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions should state, for the record, whether the FBI's statistics or Trump's distortions about the crime rate are accurate. The hearings are an opportunity to bolster facts and undermine propaganda.

The second arena is the multi-stage transformation of the social contract through congressional legislation. The Democrats should treat this as the legislative Armageddon it promises to be (while hoping Trump's incompetence doesn't lead to the nuclear kind). The legislative dynamics are not yet certain but the agenda is: a vast increase in insecurity for struggling workers and vast tax benefits for the wealthy. All of this will take place while the Trump family pursues its goal of self-enrichment. Democrats will not have to look hard for an explanatory theme to tie these elements together. 

For more than a decade, Democrats have failed to convince American voters that the Republican Party has devolved into a reactionary and destructive political force. They won't succeed this time either. Republicans, led by a careless, self-obsessed executive in the White House, and an ideologue in the House, might finally get the point across themselves.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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