The Missing Democratic Agenda
Oh, to have been a fly on the wall in Elizabeth Warren’s house as people went crazy over the prospect of Oprah 2020. I can only imagine Warren’s reaction. Did she yell at the TV? Mutter under her breath? Immediately call her media consultant in panic?
We know the slight got to her. By midweek she was making the rounds on cable. There she was, with Mark Warner of Virginia, reminding us of her existence, talking about God knows what, and smiling uncomfortably when asked, inevitably, what she thought of the Lady O.
Watching Warren and Warner, I had a vision of the next Democratic ticket. How ironic if Democrats, having lost to President Trump with a liberal woman and a boring Virginia centrist in 2016, respond four years later by nominating … a liberal woman and a boring Virginia centrist.
And how embarrassing for the two-dozen-plus Democratic officeholders mulling presidential runs that media and Hollywood would kick over the punch bowl in a mad rush to embrace as the party savior a billionaire TV star with no government or political experience and no discernable ideology or agenda. What Matthew Walther called Oprahysteria signified nothing less than Democratic leeriness and hesitancy at the coming primary fight. Crowded, aged, liberal, boring, and pale, the emerging 2020 Democratic field is no reason for excitement. Tossing Oprah into the mix livens things up.
But all that’s in the future. The midterms come first. And they will be here sooner than you think. Here, the Democrats are enthusiastic. They have many—some say too many—candidates. After Virginia and Alabama, the wind is at their backs. Trump remains unpopular. All that the Democrats are missing is an agenda. They need something to offer the public. Right now they have nothing.
Don’t tell me they have the Dreamers. Polls might show that legalizing the status of illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children is popular. But the fact is that the attention Dreamers receive from the media is remarkably out of proportion and intensity with their relevance to the everyday voter. When Pew surveyed public priorities a year ago, the top three items were terrorism (76 percent), the economy (73 percent), and education (69 percent). Immigration ranked fifteenth (43 percent) out of twenty-one options.
In the Virginia exit poll last November, immigration was only the third-most important issue, and much of that probably was from Gillespie voters who want the state to fight MS-13. Health care and gun policy were more important to Virginians. So do we really believe Claire McCaskill will begin her appeals to Missourians this fall by saying, “Reelect me, I legalized the Dreamers”?
The difference between the actual politics of immigration and the way those politics are presented in the major papers and on the television news is more than wide. It’s Grand-Canyon-scale enormous. The Dreamers are sympathetic cases the public supports. But the public also supports enforcing immigration law and reducing legal migration. A little more than a decade ago, congressional Democrats authorized the very border walls the party now opposes with such vehemence. Yet there is a not insignificant portion of the Democratic caucus that says it will refuse to support any DACA bill containing money for a barrier on the southern border. And they call Trump extreme.
The idea that Democrats benefit from a government shutdown over the Dreamers is absurd. Not only would Democrats have to explain that thousands upon thousands of federal workers are on leave because of a dispute over noncitizens. Democrats would also jeopardize the bipartisan goodwill the Dreamers enjoy by making them pawns in a cynical game. So unreasonable are the Democratic demands on immigration—more, more, always more, and with no changes to a rickety and leaky system—that one begins to wonder whether they actually want to settle the issue.
Perhaps the Dreamers and other illegal immigrants are more useful to the Democrats as tools of virtue signaling and electoral mobilization than they are as legal permanent residents in a country where the border is protected and laws are enforced. However, if my cynical interpretation is correct, then the Democratic strategy may backfire. I can think of one recent national campaign where immigration was central. It did not end in Democratic victory.
The Dreamers may turn against their supposed protectors, as is already happening. At the same time, independent voters and Trump Democrats may rebuke mealy-mouthed open borders types in favor of candidates who want both to legalize the Dreamers and to reform immigration law in a rational manner. Each scenario is plausible. Yet the political and journalistic analysis of this complex and dynamic situation never seems to go beyond the “isn’t Trump crazy and mean” stage.
This obsession with the president’s habits and eccentricities has obscured the utter emptiness of the Democratic policy cupboard. There was no alternative Democratic health care bill, no alternative Democratic tax bill. All the Democrats have is obstruction. While annoying to the administration, it hasn’t really worked. The judges are seated, the tax bill was passed, and the antiregulatory and foreign policy agenda moves forward. The latest Democratic tactic is to call the wage increases and bonuses announced for American workers as a consequence of tax reform “breadcrumbs.” Genius.
And yet: What must worry Republicans is that a lack of accomplishment and message is no barrier to political success. A listless and exhausted and bereft Democratic Party can take solace in the following British cliché: Opposition parties don’t win elections. Governments lose them.