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A Battle Beyond Politics

The Democrats are behaving like a traditional opposition party. The effect is to “normalize” Donald Trump. It will be up to the press and advocacy groups to show how far outside democratic norms Trump falls.

January 19, 2017

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

As the torch is passed to the most unlikely president in American history, the beleaguered Senate Democrats are displaying a surprising spring in their step. The confirmation hearings for Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees have been allowing the Democrats to return to the familiar turf of traditional partisan appeals.

Billionaire Betsy DeVos, who married into the family that owns Amway, had a shaky hearing Tuesday for education secretary as she was repeatedly challenged on her commitment to public schools. As the Democrats rally around slogans like “Make America Sick Again,” Rep. Tom Price, Trump’s choice for the Health and Human Services Department, has become a convenient target on everything from repealing Obamacare to privatizing Medicare. Even though the major confirmation hearing for Price is not slated until next week, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is already predicting that the Senate will find that the price is wrong—and reject the nominee.

This is the approach that the opposition party traditionally follows. The political goal is to flog issues that will help the Democrats hold most of their 25 Senate seats on the ballot in 2018 while making gains in the House and in governors’ mansions. So voters will be hearing endlessly about Republican attacks on Social Security, GOP attempts to abolish Obamacare, the party’s love of tax cuts for the rich, plus the Trump administration’s indifference to global warming, civil rights and women’s issues.

What Schumer and Company are doing is the opposite of the strategy that Hillary Clinton followed in the late lamented campaign. Clinton—sometimes maladroitly as in her “basket of deplorables” comment—tried to portray Trump as an aberration, a tragic departure from traditional Republicanism. Her goal was to peel off enough college-educated, GOP-leaning women to make a difference. As you may have noticed, it didn’t work as Hillary failed to pick up enough extra votes in places like the suburban counties around Philadelphia.

Now the Democrats seem determined to transform Trump into a generic conservative Republican—Mike Pence with a Twitter account and a hair-trigger temper.

Nearly two years from the 2018 elections, there is no way to have the remotest idea whether this will work politically. But what it does do (to use the cliché of the moment) is to normalize Trump.

Of course, Democrats are sure to continue to criticize Trump’s flouting of the norms of a democratic society. There will be speeches decrying Trump’s refusal to divest his holdings in a meaningful fashion and his obstinance in the face of continuing demands to release his taxes. If President Trump follows through with his threat to exile reporters from the White House press room, there are certain to be an angry response from some on the floor of the Congress.

Yet this is all likely to be secondary to Democratic claims of a “War on Women,” a “War on Seniors” and a “War on Mother Nature.” In politics, you go to war with the issues that work—and it is hard to see how the “emolument” clause of the Constitution will be a major vote getter in 2018.

Please understand: This is not an appeal, based on polling, to give President Trump a free ride over his disdain for ethics, a free press and civility in public life. Rather, it is a reminder that the interests of the Democratic Party in preparing for the 2018 elections may be far different than the interests of those who are concerned with democratic governance under President Trump.

The record and temperament of the 45th president place a special burden on both the news media and outside advocacy groups. It may not be popular to speak up every time President Trump shows his contempt for the traditions that have constrained prior presidents of both parties. There may be something tedious in returning—again and again—to Trump’s refusing to release his taxes and entrusting his sons to guard against any attempt to bribe the president’s family. At times, it may be frustrating to once again detail the president’s loose-lipped approach to the truth and his habit of humiliating his enemies, large and small.

The years ahead may be difficult and the struggles sometimes lonely. The need to protect democratic norms against President Trump should not be partisan crusade, but a battle beyond politics to uphold decency and an open society. As Lee Strasberg, playing the gangster Hyman Roth, said so memorably in The Godfather II, “This is the business we’ve chosen.”

(Photo: ThinkStock)

Walter Shapiro, a columnist for Roll Call, has covered the last 10 presidential elections. Along the way, he has worked for two newspapers (USA Today and The Washington Post), two news magazines (Time and Newsweek), two monthlies (Esquire and the Washington Monthly), and three online publications (Yahoo News, Politics Daily and Salon).  Shapiro is also a lecturer in political science at Yale. His book on his con-man great-uncle (Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer) has just been published by Blue Rider Press. A former Jimmy Carter speechwriter, Shapiro is also the author of “One-Car Caravan: On the Road with the 2004 Democrats Before America Tunes In,” a chronicle of the early skirmishing for the 2004 presidential nomination.

He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.