Things are looking up for President Trump and his Republican Party.
While both Trump and his congressional allies remain staggeringly unpopular, recent polling indicates that they might skate by with a narrow House majority in the fall and even pick up a seat or two in the Senate. Analysts now think the Democrats' chances of retaking the House are no better than a coin flip.
This in itself is stunning. Democrats should clean up in the midterms. Instead, they're barely muddling through. And if they fail to take control of one or both chambers of Congress, that future-altering catastrophe can be traced back to the moment in January when they decided to cave on the fight over the DREAMers and started disastrously cooperating with the president and his allies.
At the beginning of 2018, Democrats held an enormous advantage on the generic congressional ballot — almost 13 points. Democratic partisans were downright giddy about the possibility of a truly enormous blue tsunami wiping Republicans out of both the House and Senate.
That enthusiasm was based on real achievements from the opposition, defended vigorously by leaders who seemed to understand the greater-than-normal stakes surrounding fights with the Trump administration. While they lost the fight over the GOP's donor enrichment tax law, the public disliked the bill. The Democratic Party, along with its energized activists, had won a shocking victory over the summer by halting the GOP's efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, swept to huge victories in the off-year November elections, and then humiliated the president and his allies by winning the Alabama Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions.
The president had also pulled the pin out of another grenade in September when he gave the popular Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program six months to live, making hundreds of thousands of "DREAMers" (or immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children) vulnerable to deportation. Because of the GOP's ongoing inability to fund the federal government of the United States for more than five minutes at a time, Democrats set up a high-profile battle over the law to coincide with another budget battle in January. While immigration overall is a difficult and complicated issue, DACA is not. The public supports the DREAMers by extraordinary margins. According to a January poll, 87 percent of Americans want the DREAMers to stay in the United States. It was a slam dunk for Democrats, who could have hung President Trump and his allies on the hook of their own cruelty.
Instead, after briefly shutting down the government on Jan. 22, party leaders panicked and capitulated, with 33 Democrats in the Senate pocketing long-term funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and hoping for a one-on-one showdown on the DREAMers in March. When the Senate failed to pass bipartisan legislation to address the crisis, Democrats came away from this critical fight with jack.
Since then, the party has returned to its accustomed role as a group of simpering, pragmatic dealmakers. Dozens of House Democrats voted for a $1.3 trillion spending bill in March, only to see Republicans get to work on stabbing them in the back by trimming billions through an obscure process called "rescission." Then, in a truly bewildering display of stupidity, 17 Senate Democrats also voted to roll back key provisions of the Obama-era Dodd-Frank law, which placed restrictions on large banks and sought to prevent another 2008 unraveling of the financial sector. Instead of humiliating the GOP's robber barons, a group of Democrats including, mysteriously, Mark Warner (Virginia), Tim Kaine (Virginia), Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire) and Maggie Hassan (New Hampshire), joined their GOP colleagues in handing the president one of his coveted "wins" in return for a giant pile of rocks. This betrayal was flabbergasting — not only did Democrats not win any policy concessions on this or any other issue in return for their votes, they now will jointly own any future mayhem that stems from loosening critical financial oversight policies.
But it's not just that institutional Democrats seem to have lost their 2017 fighting spirit this year — the president is also benefiting from normalcy. Despite the ugly, bewildering spectacle of rage, incoherence, and abuse staged by the president on his Twitter machine every day, the world is still spinning. And that's because despite all the president's bluster, the policy status quo from 2016 remains almost completely untouched. Despite instigating what are thus far minor spats with Mexico, Canada, and the EU, the Trump administration has not actually started trade wars that could unravel the underlying arrangements of the World Trade Organization or disrupt business for more than a few industries.
The president yaps all the time about the trade deficit with China, but has not yet pulled the trigger on any moves that would spook the markets for more than a few hours. He inveighs against NAFTA but there is no sign his negotiators are having any success, or that he would actually pull out of the deal if America's neighbors refuse to bend. His torching of the Iran deal hasn't caused any real economic ripple effects yet because our European allies are busy trying to hold together the remnants of the agreement America casually torpedoed. The president's continental partners in chaos were unsuccessful in putting maniacs in charge of either Germany or France in last year's elections, thus far avoiding a fresh crisis in the eurozone.
For most people, the tax law that was passed in December 2017 barely touches them at all. Some people have seen a bit more take-home pay, while others have watched those gains disappear into the GOP's slow-motion sabotage of ObamaCare. Despite a broad sense of the law's unfairness, voters don't feel it the way they would feel a recession or an expensive, endless war. The staggering deficits created by the bill are a problem that will be dealt with by the unfortunate people of the future, just like the GOP's determination to force America back onto an energy diet of dirty coal. And Congress' historic lack of productivity might actually be an astute strategy in the sense that by doing nothing, Republicans avoid messy policy fights on issues where the public largely backs Democrats and their ideas.
Likewise, for most working people, the president's unprecedented abuses of power inside the executive branch are a distant concern, whose true consequences may not be felt for years. Few people understand or care about the norms governing FBI investigations or the hiring and firing of attorneys general. As long as the economy keeps humming, many voters might be content to give these Republicans another two years even if they sense that something is amiss inside the Swamp.
This is why it is so critically important that Democrats in Congress recapture their gung-ho crisis attitude from 2017.
No more victories for the president on policy issues that can wait until Democrats are back in charge. No more offhand comments from Chuck Schumer about how great Mitch McConnell is. The president seems to be spoiling for an election-eve immigration fight — give it to him. Raise the stakes. Remind your partisans that we are in the midst of a potentially democracy-ending crisis. Schumer and Nancy Pelosi should be on TV every day warning voters about the president's corruption and abuse of power. Come up with an actual immigration policy that's bigger than the DREAMers. Pick someone to counter the president's daily barrage of paranoid propaganda on Twitter.
More Jeff Merkley highlighting America's horrific treatment of immigrants. Less Joe Manchin talking embarrassingly about his "man-bumps" with our nightmare troll of a president.
Democrats, you had this. If you blow it with an inability to sustain a brawl for more than six months, rest assured: You will be replaced with other lawmakers who can.