Democrats never really understood the Tea Party. Why would they? From their perspective in the Obama years, Republicans made a terrible miscalculation by embracing that populist rebellion and folding it into the conservative movement. The result was a Republican Party that was, in their view, radicalized and routinely driven into strategic cul-de-sacs by a base that resented even the notion of governing in cooperation with Barack Obama. Now, at a nearly 100-year nadir of its political power, the Democratic Party’s calculation appears to be changing. Democrats may be about to experience the populist predicament of the Republican regulars firsthand.
Democrats are likely to benefit from the renewed enthusiasm of their base. The two months that it took to plan the massive “women’s march” demonstrations were virtually replicated with almost total spontaneity in the wake of Trump’s executive order banning travel into the U.S. from seven Islamic world nations. That level of organic enthusiasm is irresistible to any political party, much less one that is struggling to recover from several devastating electoral cycles. Democrats will embrace “the resistance.” They have no choice. In their view, to fail to harness and direct the development of this potent new movement is to risk being consumed by it.
But Democrats are walking a tightrope. On the one hand, they are compelled to feed this unruly activist base. At the same time, however, Democrats are also in a position of unique weakness, and their apocalyptic rhetoric cannot—and will not—be backed up with action.
As Washington Examiner columnist Byron York observed, many of the Democrats who crowded the steps of the Supreme Court on Monday night to protest the removal of an acting attorney general who declined to enforce Trump’s executive order called the episode a “constitutional crisis.” It was nothing of the kind. By declaring that she was “not convinced” of the order’s merits but in offering no further legal justification for her recalcitrance, Sally Yates was asking to be martyred. By merely appearing to make a stand against Trump, however, she had become a hero of the left’s impotent protest movement.
At that same rally, Democrats likened Yates removal by the executive branch to Richard Nixon’s “Saturday night massacre.” It is ahistorical and ludicrous to compare the removal of one DOJ official who personally disagreed with the scope of an executive order to the decapitation of the Justice Department and the removal of a special prosecutor amid an investigation into corruption charges involving the president. But such hysteria comes to us by popular demand.
Appearing on CNN, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi described Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s choice to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court bench, as a disaster on every level. She declared him to be “hostile to women’s reproductive rights” and of harboring “hostility towards children in school, children with autism.” Indeed, “if you breathe air, drink water, eat food,” or “take medicine,” Gorsuch is an urgent threat.
And yet, Gorsuch is likely to be confirmed. He needs just eight Democratic defections for this to happen under current rules, and seven Democrats have already pledged not to filibuster him nominee. One more and the Senate Majority Leader will be able to vote to close debate on the nomination and have a vote on it. Democratic legal experts who actually know something about Gorsuch have declined to echo the hyperbole of their allies in the political sector. Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Tribe called Gorsuch “smart” and an “elegant” writer. Barack Obama’s former acting solicitor general, Neal Katyal, described Gorsuch in a New York Times op-ed as a dedicated practitioner of law, not partisan politics. “Gorsuch could prove a driving force to resume the federalism revolution that we saw under the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist,” wrote George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley.
These voices likely cannot rise above the vitriolic din that passes for political discourse on the left. The celebrities who suffice for political leadership on the left will countenance no acquiescence of any kind, in any way, on any subject, to Donald Trump and his Republican allies. If Democrats in the Senate are making a strategic consideration, keeping their powder dry for more winnable fights in the months and years to come, will Democratic partisans in the grassroots share that perspective? Or will they come to regard any deference to the majority party a form of spineless capitulation? The history of the Republican Party’s complicated relationship with the Tea Party suggests the latter is more likely than the former.
Democrats watched with reckless glee as their restless base forced Republicans into one losing battle after another. All the while, Republicans won race after race, seat after seat, despite engaging in what their opponents dubbed irresponsible and unprecedented obstructionism. Democrats are surely calculating that the pain experienced by the mainstream Republican Party due to the Tea Party’s ascendance was ultimately worth the GOP’s gain. Which means the minority party’s more sober leaders, and the nation itself, could be in for a wild ride.