Looking back on it now, the result of the election is even more unfathomable than when media outlets first called the race.
Thanks to a strong economy, the two-term Democratic president enjoyed an approval rating well over 50 percent—with good reason. Despite near-total Republican opposition to his health care and stimulus plans and dire GOP warnings about “job-crushing” tax increases that would “kill the current recovery,” the Democrat presided over the creation of millions of new jobs and a falling unemployment rate which dropped below 5 percent. Though U.S. troops were still in the field protecting Muslim populations, Republican attacks that the American military had “deteriorated badly” and had two Army divisions “not ready for duty, sir” were simply untrue. At a time of relative peace and prosperity, the president’s obvious successor and the clear choice of the Democratic establishment should have won a comfortable victory.
But it didn’t work out that way. The Democrat’s mistake-filled campaign could not escape an immovable media narrative that the candidate was inauthentic, aloof, calculating, and corrupt. Despite the impossible math behind his massive tax cuts for the rich, the CEO-turned-Republican nominee was instead portrayed as the guy voters wanted to have a beer with. And despite America’s clear popular vote victory for the Democrat, mere thousands of votes across key states enabled the GOP’s man to win the Electoral College and so become president of the United States. Nevertheless, in the run-up to their inauguration, the president-elect insisted he had a mandate to govern as he sees fit. As his running mate put it:
“[He] ran on a particular platform that was very carefully developed. It's his program, it's his agenda, and we have no intention at all of backing off of it. It's why we got elected.”
And in 2001, Democrats let George W. Bush pretty much get away with all of it.
Sixteen years later, their response to Donald Trump must be “not this time and never again.” It’s not just that President-elect Trump’s policies are predicted now, as Bush’s were then, to be disastrous for the country. When Democrats regained control of the White House and Congress in 2009, they were met by Republicans with an unprecedented campaign of obstruction designed to undermine not just the norms of American politics, but America itself. And then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t merely proclaim “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” but sought to sabotage the 44th president to ensure that Republicans would not “have co-ownership of a bad economy.” As a result, Democrats should feel liberated to strike back at the times and places of their choosing with any of the tactics Republicans didn’t hesitate to use during the past eight years.
Judging by their rhetoric so far, Democrats on Capitol Hill are off to a bad start. Within days of the vote, vulnerable Democratic Senators like West Vrirginia’s Jim Manchin and North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp sounded conciliatory tones toward Trump. For his part, Manchin proclaimed, “I hope all Americans join me in working with President-elect Trump in a bipartisan way to bring our country together and make it successful.” Incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York quickly announced his Democratic colleagues will not unilaterally oppose legislation Trump sponsors and could back the new president, especially on his infrastructure plan:
“We think it should be large. He’s mentioned a trillion dollars. I told him that sounded good to me.”
If you have a sick feeling in your stomach right now, you should. For starters, Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure scheme is just a privatization scam. Instead of appropriating federal dollars to build high-priority roads, bridges, airports, rail lines, water systems, and sewage treatments plants, Trump’s is a tax break giveaway to developers for projects they will cherry-pick to own and profit from. Worse still, Republicans opposed and repeatedly voted to filibuster Barack Obama’s infrastructure investments for years. (That included the 2011 American Jobs Act, which would have also provided billions of dollars to state and local governments so they could keep hundreds of thousands of cops, firefighters, and teachers on their payrolls.) And one other thing: When George W. Bush sat in the Oval Office, many Democrats said they would work with him, too. And that didn’t turn out so well for anybody.
Consider, for example, President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program for K-12 education. Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. George Miller played major roles in enabling one of George W. Bush few domestic legislative accomplishments. Both came to have regrets about the “mixed results” and “drill and kill” fixation on standardized testing.
And then there was the gigantic Bush tax cut of 2001. Bill Clinton’s tax package of 1993 got zero GOP votes in either house. President Obama’s stimulus program of 2009 (over 40 percent of which was tax cuts) was pretty much shut out by Republicans, too. But in 2001, the newly inaugurated President Bush secured votes from 12 Democratic senators and 28 representatives, without whose support the $1.4 trillion windfall for the wealthy would not have been passed.
As the New York Times reported in June 2001, Senate Democrats like Max Baucus of Montana made Bush’s Treasury-draining payday for plutocrats possible.
Following tradition in signing major legislation, Mr. Bush used a different pen for each letter of his name, then handed the pens to Republican Congressional leaders and a few Democrats whose support was critical.
Among them was Senator Max Baucus of Montana, the new chairman of the Finance Committee, whose decision to reach a compromise between his own party's more modest tax cut and Mr. Bush's more ambitious one angered leaders in his own party, including the new majority leader, Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota. But tonight Mr. Daschle was headed to the White House for a private dinner with Mr. Bush and his wife, Laura, while Mr. Baucus said he did the right thing by striking a deal with Mr. Bush.
''Every day it looks like a better and better decision,'' Mr. Baucus said at the White House after the signing ceremony. ''In many respects, I think politically I helped the party. We Democrats would have been in trouble in 2002 just saying no to every one of the president's proposals.''
As it turned out, Baucus was wrong on every count. The then-popular wartime President Bush stumped for Republican candidates around the country, helping the GOP gain two seats in the Senate while maintaining its majority in the House. But what was bad for Democrats was even worse for America.
As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities concluded, the Bush tax cuts accounted for half of the deficits during his tenure, and if made permanent, over the next decade would have cost the U.S. Treasury more than Iraq, Afghanistan, the recession, TARP, and the stimulus—combined. And I noted four years ago (“The National Debt? Republicans Built That”):
It's not just that Ronald Reagan presided over a tripling of the national debt during his eight years in the White House or that President George W. Bush nearly doubled it again. The end-of-decade $5.6 trillion surplus forecast by the Congressional Budget Office in 2000 was more than eviscerated by two unfunded wars, two rounds of Bush tax cuts, the unpaid for Medicare prescription drug benefit and the TARP bank bailout. To accommodate those "spend and not tax" policies, Bush and his GOP allies in Congress voted seven times to raise the U.S. debt ceiling. And as it turns out, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) voted for all of it.
Utah GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch summed up the Bush years by admitting, “It was standard practice not to pay for things.”
In 2017, history is about to repeat itself. President-elect Donald Trump promised a $6 trillion, 10-year tax cut that will deliver almost half its benefits to millionaires, a group which constitutes the top 0.8 percent of all taxpayers. As a percentage of the U.S. economy, Trump’s tax cut scheme is triple the size of the one Bush roped some Democrats into supporting in the spring of 2001. Combined with his pledge to boost defense spending while leaving Medicare and Social Security benefits unchanged, Trump’s is a recipe for oceans of red ink and a growing chasm between the rich and everyone else. All of which is why Democrats in the House and Senate have to say “no” to the Trump tax cut giveaway to the gilded class. Every single one.
But that’s not all. When President Trump tries to change the nation’s libel laws, every Democrat must vote no. Trump plans to lead an assault on Obamacare, which could leave 30 million more Americans without health insurance and lead to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths each year: Democrats must scream no. When the 45th president wants his Muslim registry, Democrats must say no. When House Speaker Paul Ryan pushes his dangerously irresponsible scheme to privatize and ration Medicare for millions of American seniors, Democrats have to hold Trump to his promises and vote no. When Congressional Republicans buck Trump on privatizing Social Security, Democrats have to say “hell no.” When they try to shred the American social contract, Donald Trump and congressional Republicans must know they own it. All of it. Or, to borrow from GOP Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s battle cry to a Republican leadership dinner on the very night of Barack Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009:
“We've gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign.”
President Trump and his GOP allies need to know that applies to judicial nominations, too. Republican obstruction has left over 100 vacancies on the federal bench as President Obama prepares to leave that the Oval Office, double the figure he inherited. That includes the seat of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a court-tipping slot stolen by Republicans during their previously unheard of blockade of Judge Merrick Garland.
When Republican George W. Bush sat in the Oval Office, congressional Republicans like Arizona Senator Jon Kyl demanded an “up-or-down vote” for all of his selections to the federal bench. GOP leaders even threatened to “go nuclear” and eliminate the judicial filibuster. But within days of Barack Obama’s election in November 2008, Kyl promised the conservative Federalist Society he would filibuster judicial nominees he found too liberal. He kept true to his word, as Republicans only confirmed 43 percent of Obama’s picks to the judiciary during his first 14 months in office, compared to 86 percent for George W. Bush. In June 2015, Senate Majority Leader McConnell told right-wing host Hugh Hewitt that “the only judges we’ve confirmed have been federal district judges that have been signed off on by Republican senators,” a blockade which he pledged would continue for the rest of the session.
So, Democrats, your marching orders are clear. Republican precedent dictates that you try to block half of President Trump’s judicial nominees during his first year, and all of them during his last.
If turnabout is fair play, then Democrats also have to tell President Trump this: No Supreme Court justices for you.
After Justice Antonin Scalia shuffled off this mortal coil, the GOP Senate majority took the unprecedented step of blocking his would-be successor for almost a year. Of course, there was no “Thurmond Rule” or “Biden Rule:” Republicans simply prevented Judge Merrick Garland from getting a confirmation hearing altogether. (This, despite having been both unanimously confirmed to the DC Circuit Court and receiving a glowing recommendation from Utah Republican Orrin Hatch.) With Hillary Clinton’s victory seeming certain as Election Day approached, Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and John McCain announced they would block any Democratic replacement for Scalia, while the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Federalist Society, and other right-wing groups demanded SCOTUS be limited to eight justices for the entire Clinton tenure.
Now that Donald Trump is president-elect, Democrats have no option but to take the Republicans at their word. Unless and until the GOP goes nuclear, no Trump appointment to the Supreme Court will be confirmed. For the next four years, the Roberts Court will remain the Hateful Eight.
President Trump’s executive branch nominees shouldn’t expect a free ride either. Trump may want a #KamikazeCabinet of officials dedicated to sinking the American ship of state, but there’s no reason for Democrats to elevate kleptocrats, incompetents, and saboteurs like Jeff Sessions as attorney general, would-be Labor Secretary Andy Puzder, Tom Price at Health and Human Services, Rick Perry at the Energy Department, or Mick Mulvaney at the Office of Management and Budget.
For their parts, Republicans should have no issue with Democrats calling for and using the filibuster to block President Trump’s nominees. After all, in 2013 Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican, explained that “There is a 60-vote threshold for every nomination.” The Republicans were faithful to their word, if not the Constitution, when they filibustered 27 nominees in President Obama’s first term and an estimated 45 in the second. (George W. Bush only had seven blocked over eight years in office.) As far as Democrats should be concerned, President Trump’s picks can literally die while waiting for confirmation. After all, GOP Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton has no problem with it.
Now, Democratic strategies for halting Donald Trump’s reckless personnel picks and destructive agenda hardly need to end there. From privatization of the VA health care system to gutting the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Democrats could threaten to shut down the government over almost any issue they choose. Far more dangerous, they could hold the debt ceiling hostage (say, over Trump’s budget-busting tax cuts) as Republicans repeatedly threatened to do. But just because Republicans have given Democrats permission to use these suicidal tactics doesn’t mean they should. While Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress have no choice but to raise the debt ceiling repeatedly, a default on the good faith and credit of the United States would trigger an economic cataclysm in America and around the globe.
But what Democrats must be prepared to do is to “use states’ rights defensively against Trump.” This doesn’t mean turning to Neo-Confederate abominations like secession and nullification, but instead to the courts. Trump’s crackdowns on undocumented immigrants and Muslim Americans will need help from state and local law enforcement. It should not be forthcoming. Whether the issue is the allocation of Medicaid block grants or attempts to nationalize GOP voter suppression tactics, Democratic mayors, governors, and attorneys general should tell Donald Trump, “See you in court.”
Democratic voters, liberal activists, and progressive groups should have another message for Donald Trump and his Republican henchmen in Congress: We’ll see you in the streets. We cannot and will not stand by as family planning clinics are closed, mosques are spied on, Muslim-Americans are targeted, African-American communities are ravaged by our criminal justice system, and millions of our undocumented friends and neighbors are herded for deportation. Obamacare, Medicare, and Social Security need to be expanded, not gutted. All the while, Donald Trump’s “forgotten Americans” will suffer from buyer’s remorse as their savior makes their economic anxiety worse.
When it comes to fighting back, as the authors of “Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda” explain, the tea party can be a model for mobilizing progressive power to win:
Donald Trump is the biggest popular vote loser in history to ever call himself President- Elect. In spite of the fact that he has no mandate, he will attempt to use his congressional majority to reshape America in his own racist, authoritarian, and corrupt image. If progressives are going to stop this, we must stand indivisibly opposed to Trump and the members of Congress (MoCs) who would do his bidding. Together, we have the power to resist — and we have the power to win.
We know this because we’ve seen it before. The authors of this guide are former congressional staffers who witnessed the rise of the Tea Party. We saw these activists take on a popular president with a mandate for change and a supermajority in Congress. We saw them organize locally and convince their own MoCs to reject President Obama’s agenda. Their ideas were wrong, cruel, and tinged with racism— and they won.
Now, the tea party had deep-pocketed benefactors like the Koch brothers and Freedom Works to fund their fury. Those most-ardent of the right-wing faithful even had a television network (Fox News) fronting for them 24/7. They also had the threat of violence arrow in their quiver, as their unchallenged signs announcing “we came unarmed this time” and “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of tyrants and patriots” routinely warned.
But anti-Trump forces have one major ally the tea baggers still lack: the truth.
The tea party movement, after all, got its kickstart when CNBC analyst Rick Santelli launched an epic rant on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on Feb. 20, 2009. But contrary to Fareed Zakaria’s recent claim (around the 29:00 minute mark in the linked video) that Santelli was furious over Wall Street bank bailouts, his rage was instead targeting a “mortgage cram-down” for homeowners that was not forthcoming.
“Government is promoting bad behavior…Do we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages? This is America! How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage? President Obama, are you listening? How about we all stop paying our mortgages! It’s a moral hazard.”
This at a time when 100,000 American homeowners were being foreclosed upon every week. (It should be noted that Steven Mnuchin, Trump’s choice to head the Treasury Department, was personally involved in thousands of them.)
As it turned out, virtually none of the tea party’s talking points were true. (They were, as Sen. Jon Kyl’s office famously admitted of one of its bogus Planned Parenthood attacks, “not intended to be a factual statement.”)
But there were also no "death panels." Barack Obama wasn't born in Kenya and he isn't a Muslim. You can't demand to "keep government out of Medicare" because it is a government program. Republicans holding "Taxed Enough Already" signs were doubly deluded. By 2010, federal tax revenue as a percentage of the U.S. economy dropped to its lowest level since 1950. And with his 2009 stimulus program, President Obama didn't just deliver tax relief to 95 percent of working households: His was the largest two-year tax cut in American history. As a CBS poll found in February 2010:
Of people who support the grassroots, "Tea Party" movement, only 2 percent think taxes have been decreased, 46 percent say taxes are the same, and a whopping 44 percent say they believe taxes have gone up.
The story of the 2010 midterms that swept away the Democratic House majority was the triumph of delusion. It wasn't simply, as the New York Times asked in advance of the vote, "What if a president cut Americans' income taxes by $116 billion and nobody noticed?" Indeed, what if the House GOP budget plan used the same $760 billion in Medicare savings from Obamacare to give tax breaks to the rich and the Republicans, then campaigned by saying Democrats would kill the Medicare program the GOP itself intended to privatize? What if everything Republican voters said they knew about the Affordable Care Act was wrong? As NBC reported in August 2009:
In our poll, 72% of self-identified FOX News viewers believe the health-care plan will give coverage to illegal immigrants, 79% of them say it will lead to a government takeover, 69% think that it will use taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions, and 75% believe that it will allow the government to make decisions about when to stop providing care for the elderly.
The answer to all of those "what if" scenarios was the biggest midterm rout since Republicans whited out LBJ's Great Society majority in 1966. And after seizing the House majority in 2010, the GOP wanted the Senate and the White House, too. With Donald Trump’s popular vote defeat and Electoral College victory last month, Republican control is set to begin on January 20, 2017.
By now, Democrats should know how the script goes. As former Vice President Al Gore told Democratic National Convention delegates in 2004, “You know the old saying: you win some, you lose some. And then there's that little-known third category.” The first time we encountered that little known third category was when voters turned their backs on Bill Clinton’s two terms of peace and prosperity. In 2001, Democrats sought to cooperate and find common ground with the new minority president. President George W. Bush gave huge tax cuts to the rich, nearly doubled the national debt, dissembled the nation into the invasion of Iraq, reshaped the judicial branch, illegally spied on American citizens, committed war crimes in our name, and presided over an economic implosion even the Wall Street Journal acknowledged was “the worst track record on record.”
But Donald Trump threatens worse, even much worse. He poses an even greater challenge to Americans’ civil liberties, national security, and standard of living than Bush 43. Under President Trump, power in our country will flow from a dark nexus where plutocracy, kleptocracy, and kakistocracy meet, a self-serving government of the rich, the corrupt, and the unqualified ruling at the expense of the governed. For the nation’s sake and their own, Democrats can’t wait six years to recapture Congress and eight to take back the White House. Sixteen years after George W. Bush ambled into the Oval Office, Democrats and those to the left of center have to rise up and say, “no way. Not this time. Not ever again.”
Speaking of lefties, it was Karl Marx who famously said in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon:
Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.
Democrats must operate on the assumption that the second time can be a tragedy as well. After all, George W. Bush was traumatic enough for America. Today’s danger from Donald Trump is certainly no laughing matter.