USA Politics

The growing Democratic divide

patterns of thought

Shut out of power in Washington, Democratic leaders have been looking for ways to work with President Trump on key issues - but they risk raising the ire of a base that is shifting leftward.

'Dreamers' holding childhood pictures listened to House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Charles Schumer on Capitol Hill in Washington after President Trump's decision to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative.
Jose Luis Magana/AP
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Nancy Pelosi likely never dreamed that the DREAMers would turn on her.

But that’s what happened. Days after the top House Democrat and her Senate counterpart struck a deal with President Trump to help young illegal immigrants gain legal status, several dozen immigration activists overwhelmed a press conference she was holding on the subject.

“All of us or none of us,” they chanted. And: “we are not a bargaining chip.”

It was an extraordinary scene, playing out on Representative Pelosi’s home turf Monday in San Francisco. Here, after all, was a Democratic leader – her party frozen from power on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue – who had found a way to work with Mr. Trump to potentially shield from deportation nearly 700,000 illegal immigrants brought to this country as children, in exchange for enhanced border security. Earlier this month, Trump had rescinded their protected status under the Obama-era program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

But the challenge Democratic leaders are facing goes deeper than just DACA and immigration. Across the issue spectrum, the Democratic Party is shifting leftward – which makes dealmaking with Trump all the more fraught, and risks even wider polarization between the two parties.

The Democrats have always faced tension between their progressive and centrist or establishment wings, “but now President Trump has made that division far more severe,” says Bill Schneider, professor of policy and government at George Mason University in Arlington, Va. “The question has become, should the Democrats cooperate with President Trump and try to make deals with him, or just shun him, which a lot of Democrats think they should do.”

To many on the left, working with Trump is anathema. It “normalizes” and legitimizes him, they say. And the left wing of the Democratic Party is growing. Today, 48 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents self-identify as “liberal,” up from 28 percent in 2000, according to the Pew Research Center. Among Millennial Democrats, those aged 18 to 36, 57 percent call themselves “liberal.”

Support for single-payer

Democrats have lurched leftward in another way. Support among Democrats for “single-payer” health care – in which insurance is provided by the government - has jumped from 54 percent in April to 67 percent today, according to a Morning Consult/Politico poll, while just 33 percent of Democrats supported a single-payer system in 2014, according to Pew. Trump’s push to repeal and replace President Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act may well be behind that surge, as liberals look to establish sharp contrasts with a president they are resisting.

The continuing popularity on the left of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont may also be contributing to single-payer’s rise. Last week, Senator Sanders unveiled single-payer legislation, dubbed Medicare for All. A recent Zogby poll showed Sanders as the early favorite among Democrats to challenge Trump in 2020.

Anna Galland, executive director of the liberal activist group MoveOn.org Civic Action, comes down clearly on the side of shunning Trump.

She agrees that Democrats see compromise as a “cardinal value,” but “we’re in a moment where we can’t be compromising with white supremacists and Nazis,” Ms. Galland says, making clear that she’s referring to Trump and his statements on the violence last month in Charlottesville, Va.

Galland’s advice for DREAMers is to hold out for “clean” passage of the DREAM Act, legislation that would grant qualified illegal immigrants the right to stay in the US, and work and go to school. They would also have a path to US citizenship, a point that Trump has not agreed to. Any kind of deal that twins the DREAM Act with added border security measures is unacceptable, she says.

Protesters yell as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, not shown, tries to speak during a press conference on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, in San Francisco. Pelosi later said she respects the young immigrants who shouted her down, but said their call for a comprehensive immigration overhaul was premature.
Lea Suzuki/San Francisco Chronicle/AP
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Other progressives are less orthodox on a quid pro quo that enshrines DACA into law. Money for a border wall is “bad,” as is “long, protracted public bartering that legitimizes Trump,” says a progressive activist not authorized to speak for her organization. But “if it’s token border money, it happens quickly, a strong version of DACA is implemented, and groups advocating for DACA don’t object, that’s good.”

But for Pelosi and her Senate counterpart, minority leader Chuck Schumer, the challenge is clear: find common ground with Trump to secure legislative achievements without alienating the party’s energetic, leftward-shifting base.

Trump’s inability to pass major legislation so far this year, despite the GOP’s congressional majorities, has given the Democratic leadership a newfound influence. And pushback from liberals was inevitable, Democratic strategists say. But the leftward push isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it moves the Democratic goalpost, and thus the center, to the left, just as the tea party moved the Republican goalpost to the right.

“You’ve always got to have people pushing from the left and the outside,” says Peter Fenn, a veteran Democratic consultant. “But when it comes to cutting the deal, someone has to do it.”

Let's make a deal

Jim Kessler, co-founder of the centrist Democratic group Third Way, says cutting deals with Trump is a no-brainer. “If there’s a deal that furthers a Democratic priority and helps vulnerable people and may divide Republicans also, then sign on the dotted line,” says Mr. Kessler, a former aide to Senator Schumer. “It’s not a close call.”

An aide to Pelosi says the activists who shut down her event in San Francisco were from a local group, and that her office received an outpouring of support from DREAMers and immigrant-rights activists who said they were disappointed by the local group’s tactics. In remarks to reporters after the disrupted event, Pelosi made clear that passing the DREAM Act is just the first step on the path to comprehensive immigration reform, not an end point.

And earlier this month, when Pelosi and Schumer reached a deal with Trump to extend government funding for three months, lift the debt ceiling, and fund hurricane relief, they faced little pushback from the left. It was Republicans who expressed outrage over Trump’s deal with “Chuck and Nancy.”

Going forward, any partnering between Trump and the Democrats on Capitol Hill is likely to be situational. The last-ditch effort to “repeal and replace” Obamacare by Sept. 30 is yet another bid to pass legislation with just Republican votes (now nearly dead after Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona announced Friday he opposed the bill). After that comes tax reform, where Democrats can expect far less involvement than on immigration.

But Pelosi and Schumer have made clear that they’re ready to make deals. It is, after all, how government is supposed to work.

“Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are leaders in Congress, which is a separate but equal branch of government,” says Schneider. “A lot of Democrats say, we don’t want anything to do with [Trump], we want to shun him, we don’t want to normalize him, we want to treat him as an impostor. That makes a very powerful ideological point, but it’s not a way to govern.”

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