Almost ten months into the Trump administration, how are the Democrats doing as an opposition party? The first instinct of rank-and-file liberals is always to dismiss them as ineffective (just as, not coincidentally, it is the first instinct of conservatives to bemoan Republicans’ congenital lack of spine). And the first instinct of the mainstream press is to feed that narrative with a steady supply of “Democrats in disarray” articles. It’s an old storyline and a mossy one; my friends and I, in e-mails, mockingly use the hashtag #demsindisarray when we note articles that overhype some new Democratic calamity.
Yet there is some truth to both claims. “Disarray” isn’t exactly an unfair adjective for a party that controls no branch of the federal government and only sixteen governors’ mansions and thirteen state legislatures (Republicans control thirty-two, and five are divided). And, I might add, a party still not quite over the shock of that loss last November.
As for effectiveness, in the country’s recent history, the Democrats have never been as united or effective in opposition as the Republicans. This is less a matter of will and backbone than of the Democrats’ loyal voter base, both smaller and less rabidly monolithic than the Republicans’. To take the highest-profile example of the failure of Democratic opposition in recent times, 43 percent of Democrats in both houses of Congress (110 out of 257) voted for the Iraq war resolution of 2002. One can certainly see that as lack of backbone. At the same time, pre-war polls showed that Democratic survey respondents said they supported the war at levels around 40 percent.1 So, like it or not, those congressional Democrats reflected the will of the Democratic rank-and-file pretty closely.
The Republican Party of the past quarter-century, in contrast, would never give a Democratic president 43 percent of its vote on anything of importance. That’s not because it’s tougher or meaner, but because it’s responding to a different and less forgiving political reality—one in which, over the past thirty years, lavishly financed conservative pressure groups and right-wing media outlets have combined to create a base that brooks no compromise or accommodation. For a Daily Beast column back in 2011, I compared opposition-party levels of support in Congress for George W. Bush and Barack Obama on four of each president’s major initiatives.2 The average Democratic support for Bush in both houses on those four bills was 41.1 percent. The average Republican support for Obama on his four bills was 5.75 percent. The two parties are just different species.
However, in the age of Donald Trump, they’re becoming less different. True, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, the Democrats’ leaders, did make a deal with the president to delay a vote on the debt ceiling for three months, a deal virtually shoved in their faces by Trump at an early September White House parley that the president described to…
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