Why Democrats can't just be Obama restorationists
Trump might already be unpopular, but promising a return to the Obama years will be a recipe for disaster
Saturday's massive protests were an important reminder of the breadth and depth of apprehension toward the new regime in Washington. Donald Trump comes into office as the least popular new president in memory, and the approval rating of the Republican Congress continues to fall to uncharted depths. If Barack Obama could be stopped in his tracks by a Tea Party rebellion almost immediately after a massive popular vote and Electoral College victory, surely the far more extensive and rapid mobilization against President Trump presages an even swifter and more massive repudiation?
It certainly could happen that way. But if the Democrats want to repeat or exceed the Republican resurgence, it behooves them to understand how it developed — so they can see what they would have to do to emulate it, and, if they can't, where they must take another path back to power.
In 2009, Barack Obama took office with a clear mandate to respond to the financial crisis and the Great Recession that followed immediately in its wake. And the Tea Party first got organized explicitly in response to those efforts. It opposed the bailouts of the banks. It opposed relief for homeowners facing foreclosure. It opposed a Keynesian stimulative response. And it opposed quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve.
There was a coherent ideological unity to this opposition: the conviction that they all amounted to ways that hardworking folks who had saved their pennies would be forced to pay for other people's mistakes. However destructive of the public good, it was a potent ideology for an era of scarcity.
But it's worth stressing that this ideology was not the ideology of the Bush administration, nor of the McCain campaign. TARP was originally organized by Bush's Treasury Department, and the Federal Reserve began its extraordinary easing of monetary policy in the Bush years as well — and was led throughout the crisis period by a Bush-appointed chairman.
The Tea Party seized on these facts rather than hiding them. Far from defending the Bush administration or the McCain campaign and calling Obama to task for changing direction, it eagerly condemned them both for their betrayal of conservative principles. In this way, the Tea Party seized the mantle of change. Obama and the Democrats had their response to the crisis — and through the Tea Party, the Republicans transformed from being the party that caused the crisis to the party that advocated a very different response.
The Gingrich Republicans did pretty much the same thing back in their day. The elder President Bush sparked a revolt on his right flank for having violated his pledge not to raise taxes. Gingrich was one of the leaders of the Republican opposition to that move, and he rode that opposition all the way to the speakership. Then, President Clinton — elected with a smaller percentage of the popular vote than President Trump — passed his own tax hike and spending initiatives, and Gingrich swung into furious opposition. With the Contract with America, Republicans went from being the party to blame for the savings and loan crisis, and the huge deficits and tax hikes that followed, to being a party with something new to say — a different response to the budget and tax situation than the one proposed by the Clinton administration.
The same was true of the Reagan revolution in 1980. Between high inflation and high unemployment at home, and the hostages in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan abroad, Reagan had plenty to run against. But he ran against way more than that. In the primaries and in the general election, he ran not only against Jimmy Carter's failed tenure, but against Gerald Ford's as well — a replay of his 1976 challenge to the sitting Republican president. He wasn't a restorationist. He was a revolutionary. As, in his opera buffa way, is Trump himself, having capitalized on the Tea Party's anti-establishment energy and channeled it towards his own indictment of America's governing elite, the GOP elite very much included.
Is this only a dynamic on the Republican side? I would argue not. The Democrats' victories in 2006 and 2008 were insurgent campaigns built on the example of Howard Dean's 2004 presidential run. They were a repudiation not only of the Bush administration but of the mainstream Democratic response to Bush's policies. And while neither Carter's campaign in 1976 nor Clinton's in 1992 could plausibly be described as revolutionary (they both ran to the right of the median Democrat), neither could they be rightly described as restorationist.
Can the Democrats follow that playbook now? Do they even want to? I think they can — but it's not clear they do. Hillary Clinton's campaign, for all its arrogance and ineptitude, substantively represented the views of mainstream Democrats pretty well. And Obama left office not only very popular on a personal level, but with a growing percentage of Americans supporting his core policy initiatives. There's a lot of loyalty there, and its reflected in the elegiac tone of much of the commentary on the end of the Obama years, and the continued popularity of "I'm With Her" on Saturday's signs.
But Democrats would be well advised to abjure these sentiments when they think about making a case to the American people over the next two years. It's a positive for Democrats that they don't need to escape the memory of a deeply unpopular ex-president. But it's also a negative if it keeps them from charting a new course, or separating themselves from the aspects of their time in office that enough Americans were frustrated with to take the extraordinary risk of electing Trump.
Those Americans are the ones Democrats need to be loyal to, not to their own leadership. That may mean occasionally agreeing with and even praising Trump — as Bernie Sanders did when the president withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. If you stand for something, you need to stand for it even when your opponents agree with you — and doing so in no way stops you from fighting them on other fronts. Gingrich reached across the aisle to pass NAFTA and welfare reform, both priorities of his that congressional Democrats opposed. Neither stopped him from shutting down the government, nor his successors from pursuing impeachment.
I am confident that President Trump and Paul Ryan will give Democrats plenty to run against. What, specifically, will be determined by events. If Trump violates his frequent pledges to protect Social Security and Medicare, or if he signs a bill to repeal the ACA with no replacement, that will lead to one kind of campaign. If the economy slips back into recession, that will dictate a somewhat different campaign. If the Republicans wind up doing next to nothing because their caucus fears being punished for passing unpopular legislation, knowing that Trump will blame them for anything that the public opposes, then that will dictate yet a third kind of campaign.
But regardless of what the Democrats wind up running against, they will need to present what they are for — and frame it as a response to the needs of this moment. If they don't know what those needs are, then the first item of business is to go where they lost ground (or failed to gain enough ground) in 2016 and find out. And those who think they already know can start making their case, out loud.
The Democrats don't need to argue about the past. They need to argue about the future. That's a task they can start working on right now, without waiting for Trump to set their agenda.