As Democrats ponder the looming Trump administration and the selection of a new party Chairman, they should take a short trip north to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. It was in this “valley of humiliation” that a weary and ragtime Continental Army, lacking provisions and on the brink of defeat, retreated for the winter of 1777-78. The Continental Army endured the difficult winter and emerged from Valley Forge months later as a well-trained force buoyed by a strategic alliance with France.
Thomas Paine later wrote,
Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and to repulse it.
Democrats face their own “valley of humiliation” as they are about to be shut out of power in Washington (excluding the Mayor’s office) and control only 18 governor’s mansions and 12 state legislatures. With President Obama, the Clintons and Harry Reid stepping aside, a new generation of Democrats are preparing to step forward to lead the party, but they must understand what they are up against.
Civil War by Other Means
In leading the Republicans into majority party status, Newt Gingrich stressed that Republicans must fight the Democrats “with the scale and duration and savagery that is only true of civil wars.” In the Obama era, it has been Senator Mitch McConnell chanting the “party first” mantra as he led the Republicans to a level of obstruction unseen since just before the Civil War. McConnell’s eight-year war against President Obama culminated with his refusal to even consider President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merritt Garland.
Democrats too often view politics as a genteel sport governed by the Marquess of Queensberry rules; when the reality is, like it or not, they are in a street fight and, with Donald Trump about to enter the White House, the stakes have never been higher. Despite losing the popular vote, the Republicans control Washington and will push their agenda as if they had a true mandate.
Obama’s To-Do List
President Obama can set the stage for a Democratic resurgence by taking three key actions before leaving the White House. First, Attorney General Lynch should name an independent counsel to investigate Russian involvement in the 2016 election. I would suggest a moderate Republican, such as William Weld (a former U.S. Attorney), to minimize any partisan taint. Trump could easily fire or replace the independent counsel upon taking office, but it would come at a steep political price.
Second, the President should pardon Secretary Clinton in order to avoid the GOP using her as a political distraction when Trump inevitably stumbles.
Finally, President Obama should use his farewell address to remedy one of his biggest failures which is not hammering home how he led us from the wreckage of the Bush administration. The President should warn the country to be wary as the Republicans revive the same economic policies that have only brought us crippling recessions and record deficits. Congressional Democrats must then echo this warning once Trump is sworn in.
A Determined Opposition
Democrats must be ready to fight the Trump administration with the same intensity that the Republicans brought against President Obama.
Trump’s Cabinet of Deplorables must face strong Democratic opposition. I am encouraged that Senator Democratic Leader Schumer has vowed to fight the worst of them. They should also “Garland’ any nominee to fill the Scalia vacancy (unless a compromise candidate is chosen), just as Republicans were prepared to do had Secretary Clinton won. After all, Senator McConnell wanted to let the voters have their say and by nearly 3 million votes they favored a Democratic nominee.
The first battle, however, could come at the very dawn of the Trump era. A Brookings Institute study found that Trump, in failing to divest his various enterprises so that foreign interests cannot gain favor by advancing his business interests, is engaging in “an intentional abuse of power that is manifestly unconstitutional” under the Emolluments Clause which prohibits accepting “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” You simply do not get a honeymoon on Constitutional violations.
A Renewed Party
Many of us remember, how quickly Democrats rolled over when challenged by President Bush following 9-11. A determined opposition can also serve as part of the first step for Democrats to re-energize their base and rebuild a national party that has reached a low point in much of America.
The “Art of War” teaches us that “the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself”. There is little doubt that the thin-skinned Twitterer-in-Chief will be generous in this regard and, as the failed attempt to shutter the Office of Congressional Ethics demonstrates, Congressional Republicans are certain to overreach and risk a backlash.
Democrats, however, need to do more than oppose. As the party selects a new Chair, they should seek to be more inclusive than they were under Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and more welcoming to all wings of the party. At the same time, however, they should be wary of embracing divisive leaders who might alienate their base or strident demands from the wing of the party that has never won a modern election.
With a new leader and new rising stars, Democrats must be ready to communicate the party’s historic message of economic opportunity, political inclusion and a foreign policy that is consistent with American values, just as Gingrich did for Republicans a generation ago with his Contract with America. This will revitalize the party as a national brand and make an eventual restoration possible – both in Washington and throughout the country.
As Thomas Paine noted two centuries ago, “[t]hese are the times that try men’s soul,” but remember from that bleak winter emerged a renewed army that would conquer the greatest power in the world.