Instead, six of the seven candidates for chair of the Democratic National Committee were attending a retreat of top party donors in Florida. The lone exception was South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who joined the women’s march in his hometown in Indiana.
A week later, and with another wave of protests erupting, those DNC officials made sure to place themselves squarely on the vanguard. Two top contenders for the post ―Buttigieg and former Labor Secretary Tom Perez ― both rushed to the airport in Houston to join the masses demonstrating against Trump’s executive order outlawing refugees and visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. The next day, Perez was at the airport in San Francisco, protesting once more, and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn) ― as the first Muslim-American to serve in Congress ― was on CBS’s “Face the Nation” attacking Trump and joining protesters at the airport in Minneapolis.
Nine days into his presidency, Trump has unleashed a wave of angst and opposition far greater than anticipated. But as the evolving travel schedules of the prospective party chairs illustrate, Democratic officials are still sprinting madly to catch up.
“These are not the standard activists. This is finally the awakening of what I’d call the first global generation. These are people whose principles Trump’s victory has thrown out the window. They feel left behind by their own country and finally they are going to do something about it,” said Howard Dean, the former DNC chair who has been privately encouraging Senate leadership to more forcefully oppose Trump. “And if Democrats don’t take the leadership of this, they won’t have the opportunity to do so later on.”
There is little dispute that the backlash against Trump has engendered a tremendous opportunity for the Democratic Party. But from the onset, there’s been confusion and disagreement over what the best posture should be. Elected officials settled on a hybrid approach: firm opposition to much of Trump’s agenda, with a notable willingness to compromise on select issues like infrastructure. For the base, such nuance glossed over the unique moral threat that Trump represented. Resist isn’t a hashtag for them; it is the cause.
“Right now we’re sort of rudderless from the Democratic Party perspective.”
So when the DNC candidates showed up at the Florida fundraiser instead of marching in D.C., they faced blowback for misguided priorities. And when Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) ― two progressive stalwarts ― voted to move forward with Dr. Ben Carson’s nomination for secretary of housing and urban development, they were charged with helping legitimize Trump.
When Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) held a spaghetti dinner this past weekend in Providence, approximately 1,000 people showed up to urge him to oppose Trump’s policies and his cabinet nominees. (Whitehouse had voted to confirm Trump’s CIA director, Mike Pompeo.)
The progressive group Democracy for America, which endorsed both Warren and Brown for reelection before the Women’s March, got complaints from its members who were disappointed over the Carson vote.
“That certainly serves as a warning shot to anybody who’s up for reelection in 2018. The Democratic base is watching, and they do not want to see Democrats aiding and abetting or appeasing or voting for any of Trump’s nominees. They want to see them actually stand up and be strong. If they do that, they’re going to be rewarded. If they don’t, then they’re not. And it’s really that straightforward,” said DFA Executive Director Charles Chamberlain.
And as the second wave of protests erupted over the weekend, activists began more forcefully airing their frustrations that elected officials weren’t doing enough.
“Honestly, as someone who’s worked for elected officials before, I don’t have a lot of hope for Democrats,” said Arona Kessler of Fairfax, Virginia, who protested outside the White House on Sunday. “His nominees are getting confirmed with Democratic support, so that’s all you need to know.”
“We need leadership,” said John Garrity, of Washington, D.C, who also attended the march. “We need somebody to step up and really try and leverage the momentum that we’re seeing over the last couple of days. It’s incumbent for someone to step up and build off of what we’re seeing. Right now we’re sort of rudderless from the Democratic Party perspective.”
Matching the concerns of the protestors is a difficult task for a Democratic Party with no tools of political power, save the Senate filibuster that will force 60 votes for Trump’s legislative agenda. And while they were despondent over the likelihood of Trump’s Cabinet being confirmed, most protesters on Sunday said they recognized that there were few, if any, leverage points to stop those nominees.
But progressive groups that provide resources, donations and manpower to Democratic candidates all told The Huffington Post Sunday that their members now want uniform opposition to the nominees. MoveOn.org said it expects Democrats to do everything in their power to slow the nomination process and, by extension, much of the business in the Senate.
“After the last 72 hours, they expect Democrats to vote against every single nominee and resist and obstruct every single one of his legislative initiatives,” said Murshed Zaheed, vice president and political director of CREDO Action. Added Progressive Change Campaign Committee Co-Founder Stephanie Taylor: “Voting for Trump’s nominees at this point normalizes his hate-filled actions like the Muslim ban.”
For lawmakers more accustomed to the slow pace of governance, where opposition comes in the form of roll calls and procedural gamesmanship, it’s been an adjustment. But already, a more aggressive posture is apparent. On Sunday afternoon, congressional Democratic leadership announced that they’d meet at the steps of the Supreme Court Monday to demand that Trump withdraw his executive order.
Other Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, said they’d introduce legislation to rescind the ban, in addition to exploring filing an amicus brief in support of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has fought the executive order in the courts.
Lawmakers were conspicuous on Saturday and Sunday at the protests around the country, with even freshmen like Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) taking a prominent role, breaking with the tradition of new senators keeping low profiles. Other Democratic lawmakers directly confronted Customs and Border Protection officials to get access to detainees.
Others who didn’t show up may feel the consequences. Zaheed, who was at the San Francisco airport, said protesters confronted Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) when he arrived, asking why other California elected officials weren’t there with him.
Senate Democrats will soon face a key test, when Trump nominates his choice to fill the Supreme Court seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Unless they change the filibuster rules, Republicans will need some Democratic votes to approve Trump’s pick. Progressives hope to turn the battle into a litmus test on Trump’s orders and to keep the party uniformly opposed. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has said he will oppose any Trump pick that is out of the “mainstream,” but for many in the base ― and even more establishment types ― more may be needed, and soon.
“If the Democratic officeholders don’t start [showing fight] soon, then they are going to become irrelevant,” predicted Dean.
Travis Waldron contributed reporting.
CORRECTION: This article previously misstated that Arona Kessler was part of the march to the Capitol. She participated in the protest at the White House but did not march.
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