In the era of Trump, congressional Democrats should practice “strategic co-opposition.”
As President Donald Trump takes office and a new Congress dawns, Democrats face what seems to be an insurmountable strategic disadvantage. As the minority party in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, they lack all the traditional tools for keeping an executive in check: no committee chairmanships, no subpoena power, and no control over the legislative agenda.
But Democrats should still take heart: they’ve been here before and won.
In the fall of 2004, Democrats were also pinned to the mat and flailing. President George W. Bush had just eked out a second-term win, edging out John Kerry. The race came down to a single state—Ohio—and a margin of just 136,000 votes. By the time a devastated Kerry conceded the race to Bush, Republicans had also strengthened their hold on the Senate by four seats—to a fifty-five-member majority—and bolstered their control of the House, outnumbering Democrats 232 to 203.
For an emboldened GOP, the new monopoly on Washington was a golden opportunity to pursue a long-cherished conservative priority: privatizing Social Security. “Younger workers should have the opportunity to build a nest egg by saving part of their Social Security taxes in a personal retirement account,” said Bush in his 2004 State of the Union address. Privatization became the top priority of the second-term agenda for Bush, who tasked advisers Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman with crafting a strategy to steamroll the Democratic minority.
But by the summer of 2005, Bush’s grand plan was in tatters. In February, just 35 percent of Americans approved of his handling of Social Security, down from 49 percent at the start of his first term in 2001. In March, Republican pollster Glenn Bolger found that 58 percent of Americans were against the proposed “private accounts.” That fall, the Bush plan died ignominiously. And in 2006, Democrats won back the House and the Senate, upsetting twelve years of GOP domination.
Bush’s Social Security plan did not crash and burn on its own. It was Democrats who steered that plane. As Amy Sullivan chronicled in these pages in May 2006 (“Not as Lame as You Think”), “Day after day, Democrats launched coordinated attacks on Bush’s ‘risky’ proposal. Without a single Democrat willing to sign on and give a bipartisan veneer of credibility, the private accounts plan slowly came to be seen by voters for what it was: another piece of GOP flimflam.”
In 2005, congressional Democrats were burdened with perceptions of being weak, feckless, and disorganized. No one today would say the same of incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, one of the wiliest and most aggressive strategists on Capitol Hill, or of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, now battle hardened after so many years playing defense. Whatever outrages Trump might propose, Democrats in Congress can and do have the wherewithal to mount an effective resistance.
The real questions are how often and when.
Contemplating the unique dangers posed by Donald Trump, and remembering the way Barack Obama was treated by the Republicans for the past eight years, many on the left are calling, understandably, for a strategy of pure and total opposition—anything else smacks of Vichy-like collaboration. But that approach is impractical and, in the long run, self-destructive. Rather, the right approach is one of “strategic co-opposition”—an art that Republicans have, in fact, perfected and that Democrats would do well to mimic.