The practice of waging legislative “total war” against a White House controlled by the opposition is fairly new to American politics.
It was invented after Bill Clinton was elected in 1992. A Republican cadre of backbenchers, big donors and campaign operatives decided the GOP establishment could not be trusted to resist the new president, whom they thought was detestable, but dangerous because of his charisma and control of Congress.
Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole and House Minority Leader Robert Michel, centrists and dealmakers from another era, led the Republicans in Congress. The ringleader of the guerilla faction was the GOP House Whip, Newt Gingrich.
Parallel insurgencies formed away from Congress, notably the cloak-and-dagger “Arkansas Project,” which sent muckrakers into every hollow in Arkansas. Without it, Whitewater, Paula Jones and Vince Foster probably would never have been in headlines.
Bomb-throwing did not destroy bipartisanship immediately. In 1993, Clinton and the Republicans passed the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Brady Bill and signed the NAFTA treaty. However, Clinton’s greatest ambition, comprehensive health care reform, was vanquished.
In 1994, Republicans seized control of the House for the first time in generations. Gingrich ousted Michel and became Speaker of the House. Republicans launched a relentless onslaught of committee inquisitions that eventually would start impeachment. Clinton was in handcuffs for the rest of his term.
On the scales of extremism, unpredictability, scariness and divisiveness, Donald Trump makes Bill Clinton look like George Washington.
You would expect — and about 2,500,000 more people than those who voted for Trump will demand — the Democrats to marshal an even tougher resistance.
Thus far, institutional Democratic opposition looks wobbly:
- The Democratic brass is nearly silent about the fact that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a wide margin, just as it has avoided backing recount efforts or questioning why the Electoral College still makes sense. They also have been bizarrely passive about Russian hacking. The Democrats have overly-conceded; they have given Trump his mandate on a fake gold platter instead of relentlessly challenging it.
- The party is in a catfight over who will lead the Democratic National Committee. There are no A-List leaders in the fray when that is what they need in this crisis.
- House Democrats reelected their three top leaders; two are 77, the other is 76. Like congressional ostriches, they don’t see a reason to disrupt business as usual. Backbench baby ostriches are letting it happen.
- The intense post-election protests disappeared by Thanksgiving. That’s a shame, because they made Trump cuckoo.
There is at least a healthy pulse in the Senate. Much of the blood pressure is coming from Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Their new Minority Leader is Charles Schumer, a veteran gladiator, a sound-bite factory but a true pal to Wall Street.
Senate resistance will do a fine job fighting Trump’s most controversial appointments, such as Tom Price for HHS and Jeff Sessions for Attorney General. But they can’t block them. They will use all their artillery (they better!) fighting Trump’s Supreme Court nominee unless he throws a moderate curveball. Unlike Mitch McConnell’s caucus, they will cooperate with Trump when policies align. When they don’t, as with Obamacare, they will fight in the legislative trenches.
Trump has proved he can beat such conventional tactics, however, at least in campaigns.
Do any Democrats or anti-Trump patriots outside the party intend to mount a serious unconventional counter-insurgency?
The GOP has embraced Trump with grotesque lust. Democrats are scared and hope he just self-destructs. The press is Lilliputian against this alien giant. “K Street” is ready for a bonanza. The more time passes, the more normal Trump seems to Americans in TV land.
In March, I wrote that none of Trump’s GOP opponents, Clinton or the party machines would beat Trump on their own without unprecedented, counter-populist help from outside of politics from Hillary’s proverbial village.
The village stayed home. If that continues, the country will deserve what it gets from a Trump administration.
The Democrats are a mess. Trade unions are on life support. The giant liberal interest groups have become bureaucracies in the swamp. Student activists are fighting parochial campus crusades.
The “mainstream media” has a shadow of the influence and resources it had in the 1990s. Even if big media is biased, as conservatives claim, there is certainly no left-wing media that comes close to the clout, reach and bloodlust of today’s conservative media.
Perhaps Al Gore can convert Trump on climate change. Maybe James Mattis, the nominee for Secretary of Defense, can convince Trump not to tear up the Iran deal.
But our wise old democracy ought to be able to recognize this unique threat and muster deeper checks and balances fit for the times. The leaders and thinkers we need to guard constitutional values at this precarious moment will not come from the professional political class; if any do — a big if — look, for starters, to our successful, job- and product-producing businesses, to young veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan now getting politically active, to scientists leading revolutions and to the social entrepreneurs across the country who helped secure gay marriage, health care for the rural poor and clean water for towns abandoned by corporate industry.
America needs a Trump Tower Project and it needs it to be huge, right now.