The Democratic base is growing anxious as its leaders order Chinese food and make deals with the president who many in their ranks would prefer to see impeached.
For some liberal activists and lawmakers, the burgeoning partnership between President Donald Trump and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi amounts to dancing with the devil. As long as the Democrats keep leading — driving a wedge between Trump and the fractured GOP — no one will bust up the dance.
But the sudden burst of bipartisanship could be perilous for Democrats. Already, immigration activists and Hispanic lawmakers are worried Democratic leaders will give too much ground in any deal to protect Dreamers. Progressives are also chiding Schumer and Pelosi for “normalizing” Trump, a man the party intends to run against hard in 2018 and 2020.
“Nothing Trump has done should change the fact that he’s pursuing a toxic agenda, that he has been and continues to be divisive and disastrous,” said Justin Krebs, campaign director at MoveOn.org. “The American people at large know that, and Democratic leaders should not forget that.”
Even within Schumer and Pelosi’s own caucuses, some Democrats are rattled.
“I am asserting that our base — our rank-and-file base — and a lot of us in the caucus, want to see … or hear, periodically, that parameters are being set” in discussions with Trump, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said in an interview. “And we get alarmed at the speculation that this might be a new day dawning.”
“Let’s not fool ourselves,” Connolly added. “He is this person we know, and I just think there must be both political and moral limitations with how far we’re willing to cooperate with that.”
Schumer and Pelosi have made a concerted effort to loop in liberal groups that provided potent grass-roots backup in their successful fight against the GOP’s Obamacare repeal effort. But amid longtime skepticism on the left toward party leadership, the bonhomie Trump appears to share with the two top Democrats has put some on edge.
“Schumer and Pelosi often tend to be out of touch with the zeitgeist of the progressive movement,” said Murshed Zaheed, political director at the liberal group CREDO Action.
Zaheed predicted “fierce blowback” if activists perceive that the Democratic leaders have traded away their base’s priorities in any agreement with Trump.
The risk is highest so far on immigration. Liberal activists are continuing to push for a vote on stand-alone legislation to give a path to citizenship for the Dreamers, even though Pelosi and Schumer have inked a “deal to make a deal,” as Pelosi called it, to trade Dreamer protections for beefed-up border security.
“I love Nancy Pelosi,” Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) declared. “I don’t have any doubt of her authenticity and commitment. But how do I now have to accept border security? Do I now have to put up half a fence? Is it going to have electricity and barbed wire on it?”
For their part, both Democratic leaders are confident in the red lines they have drawn with Trump so far. Schumer made clear to Trump over Chinese food Wednesday night that major talks are impossible on White House priorities such as tax reform until the president can work with Democrats on the Dreamers and shoring up Obamacare, according to a person briefed on the dinner, and Pelosi agreed.
Schumer and Pelosi were “presented with the option of working with a president we don’t like, abhor on a number of fronts, or letting hundreds of thousands of young people get deported,” one Democratic leadership aide said. “So I don’t think there’s a question.”
Democratic leaders have no intention of giving in on any item that Trump could even spin as a down payment on his border wall, the aide added, noting that spending on a dam project in one border district got nixed from May’s government funding agreement to avoid giving the president’s team anything approaching a win on the wall. Whatever enhanced border security Democrats back will be much smaller than what their party supported in the 2013 Senate comprehensive immigration reform bill.
Democratic leaders have also put out a hard line on taxes, so far adopting liberal activists’ rhetoric that “not one penny” in tax cuts should go to the rich or corporations. But the White House is eager for Democratic support on taxes, so leadership’s ability to maintain a united front may be tested.
On health care, Schumer and Pelosi may also soon have to decide whether it’s worth winning funding to stabilize health insurance markets in exchange for loosening Obamacare’s regulations. GOP lawmakers insist they won’t give a “bailout” to insurance companies without reforms to the health law.
A new bipartisan era could also undermine Democrats’ immediate political goals.
Midterms are typically unkind to the party who controls the White House, and a president with approval ratings in the 30s has Democrats hopeful for a wave in 2018. But giving Trump the sheen of bipartisanship risks boosting his standing and potentially undermining Democrats’ efforts to win back Congress, not to mention the White House in 2020.
On the other hand, some Democratic operatives see an upside to Democratic deal-making. Vulnerable red state Senate Democrats are eager to show they can work with Trump. And the president’s friendliness toward Schumer and Pelosi is only further frustrating the congressional GOP.
“You need to acquit yourself, if you’re part of the opposition to, ‘We might have to deal with this guy for four years. What can we do during that time to save America?’” said Rodell Mollineau, a veteran Democratic strategist now at public affairs firm Rokk Solutions.
“If it means making one-off deals here and there — so, for instance, 700,000 folks can stay in this country — then you do it,” Mollineau added, referring to the undocumented immigrants at risk of deportation after Trump canceled the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Should Democrats expand their budding dialogue with Trump to other issues, nerves would jangle even more within their base. But that hasn’t happened yet.
“There is little tolerance for working with the president to achieve his agenda, whether that’s the wall, Obamacare repeal, tax cuts, etc.,” said strategist Jesse Ferguson, a former deputy director of the House Democrats’ campaign committee.
“There is a wide willingness to accept his endorsement of our priorities whenever he wants to,” Ferguson said. “So if the president is willing to do a 180, we’re happy to keep staring at him as he turns around.”