WASHINGTON — Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson answered Democratic Sen. Tom Udall’s questions on climate change Wednesday, but he left a fair amount of wiggle room.
Democrats regard the topic as a vital issue, one that they’ve signaled will be a key focus in expected battles with President-elect Donald Trump’s administration.
But Udall, of New Mexico, was impeccably polite to the former Exxon Mobil CEO, even after Tillerson declined to give a simple yes or no answer to whether he agreed with the energy company’s position that climate change is caused by human activity and that it poses a real risk.
Udall moved on, and thanked the oil man very much.
His dodgy answer didn’t go unnoticed, however, and another senator stepped into the breech to press the nominee. It was Republican Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, who asked Tillerson again and then cut him off for running on too long.
“This is not quite as succinct as I was hoping,” Corker said, looking at least mildly annoyed.
As Corker tried to pin Tillerson down, Udall interrupted the chairman to say, “I think we should let him finish.”
Udall said it with a smile and a chuckle that suggested he realized the oddity of a Democrat being more solicitous of a Trump nominee than a GOP committee boss.
But the moment also said something about how Democrats intend to deal with the incoming Trump administration: They’re going to play ball, and play by the rules. It’s a theme that could be seen across the first two days of hearings on Trump’s choices to run his government.
There were certainly moments when Democrats gave nominees grief. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) forced Tillerson to outright refuse to answer what he knew about Exxon hiding climate science data for decades. A day earlier, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) deadpanned his way through questions of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the attorney general nominee, to reveal that Sessions’ claimed personal involvement in 20 to 30 civil rights cases, but the involvement often amounted to Sessions signing his name.
More often, though, Democrats took the mild-mannered approach, in sharp contrast to the heated criticisms President Barack Obama’s nominees faced from Republicans across his eight years.
When Sessions came before the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, the ranking Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, opened up by laying out many of Sessions’ votes that Democrats find deplorable. She didn’t raise questions about claims of racism. And she started the clear recitation of his votes with something of an apology, saying that since she’s known Sessions in the Senate for 20 years, “That makes this very difficult for me.”
Indeed, even after watching Republicans roadblock President Obama for the last six years and after watching Trump topple Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton with a daily fusillade of insults and unsubstantiated charges, responding in kind seems to be very difficult for Democrats.
Some observers see that in a positive light and as the natural strategy for new Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has said he’ll work with Trump when Trump agrees with Democrats and fight him when he disagrees with Democrats.
“This is the real world, and you’ve got to throw hard ones at the head when they do the same to your batters,” said Baruch College political scientist Douglas Muzzio, who has followed Schumer since he was an assemblyman in Brooklyn.
“You have to stand firm, but you don’t stand firm nine days before the inauguration. You play it straight, and maybe bend over backwards for his nominees. You play ball until he cheats.”
“You have to stand firm, but you don’t stand firm nine days before the inauguration,” Muzzio added. “You play it straight, and maybe bend over backwards for his nominees. You play ball until he cheats.”
Kaine, who was Clinton’s running mate, felt like Tillerson cheated at least a little when he refused to answer the question about Exxon Mobil’s climate data chicanery.
He still felt, though, that Democrats would not be well served trying to play in the same realms of fake news and false outrage that Trump rumbled through on the way to the White House.
“I used to say I never lost a race, and I have to slightly amend it. I’ve never lost the popular vote in any race, and that’s nine elections in Virginia, where I’ve always come out on the winning end,” Kaine said after the hearing when asked if there were any lessons Democrats could take from the GOP’s recent examples. “I think my people want me to be about the substance.”
There are some Democrats who can be expected to throw some bombs in Trump’s direction, primarily Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and 2016’s Democratic primary runner-up, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
But even other liberals are inclined to stick with the strategy of drawing a serious contrast with the explosive Trump and being tough only when it seems truly warranted.
“That’s been part of the conversation over the last two weeks in terms of trying to make sure that we’re still in character, that we’re still the party that believes in governing, we’re still the sane folks,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said. “But we understand that these are no ordinary times, and it’s going to require not just extraordinary measures, procedurally, but we have to tap into both the anger and the fear that people are feeling out there.”
It could be argued Trump did exactly that with a campaign that warned of immigrant rapists, terrorist-inspired refugees and imaginary surges in the national crime rate. How a party responds to voter fears and concerns without adopting more of a hardball approach is a puzzle.
A senior Democratic aide didn’t see it as such a difficult problem and argued that the unorthodox nature of Trump’s campaign — in which he adopted a number of traditional Democratic positions, such as a tough stance on trade and an interest in rebuilding infrastructure — would spark strife and gridlock among the GOP and leave Trump only with his trademark insults to push back at Democrats.
“Trump can either come to us like he campaigned on some issues, or he can run away from us and not get stuff done.”
“If we’re in the position where he’s calling us names and we’re talking about things that matter to people, that’s a good place for us,” said the aide, speaking anonymously in order to offer candid observations.
“We’re unified. Trump can either come to us like he campaigned on some issues, or he can run away from us and not get stuff done,” the aide said.
Still, not all observers are sold on the idea that Democrats can succeed if they stick with the advice Michelle Obama famously offered in the 2016 campaign: When the other side goes low, Democrats go high.
Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, thought Democrats like Schumer might be trying very carefully to draw strong contrasts by maintaining a calm bearing.
“The other option, though, is not so good, meaning the Democrats are just more reluctant to engage in the kind of hardball legislative tactics that Republicans thrive on, that in the end they are more committed to governance, they are more committed to the political process working than Republicans, and that because of that they’re not willing to do what is necessary to really obstruct,” Zelizer said.
He did not think the party’s prospects of advancing its agenda were very good if it couldn’t also find an inner tough guy to go along with drawing contrasts.
“It didn’t work for Obama. He tried that again and again with Republicans post-2010, and they continued to do the obstruction, and it worked well for them,” Zelizer said. “Hillary Clinton tried to do it in 2016 in a campaign where she constantly contrasted a deliberative, thoughtful approach to chaos on the campaign tail and she lost. I think if Democrats try that again, it’s not clear that it’s going to work for them.”
Kaine has heard such discussion. But after seeing and suffering from the Trump phenomenon, staying substantive and even polite is still the right strategy, as far as he’s concerned. He added that it doesn’t mean he and other Democrats have to roll over, though.
“You can be tough about the substance,” Kaine said, noting how he put Tillerson on the spot in Wednesday’s hearing. “But you don’t have to be a jerk to do it.”