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Democrats need to be an opposition party, not a minority party.
So why aren’t Democrats acting like it? Why aren’t they trying to force Republicans, the media, and the emergent Trump White House to act like it?
This is not an argument that the election was rigged, or that Trump’s win is somehow illegitimate. The president is chosen by the Electoral College. The Senate is built to favor small states. Gerrymandering is legal. America does not decide national elections by simply tallying up votes.
But the will of the voters still matters, or at least it should. Thus far, Democrats have slipped comfortably into the position of minority party. They aren’t demanding that Trump put forward compromise candidates for key posts. They aren’t laying out a proactive agenda that would serve as their basis for negotiations with Trump and the Republicans. And they aren’t, in their public messaging, emphasizing that most voters opposed Trump’s agenda, and that both Democrats and Republicans need to take that seriously.
Democrats have confused the reality of being out of power with the idea of being in the minority. This lets the Trump administration and the Republican Party confuse the reality of being in power with the idea of having a mandate for their agenda.
As grim as the situation is for Democrats — and it is grim — it’s not going to take long for Republicans to recognize their peril. They’ve lost the popular vote in six of the past seven elections. Their president-elect is less popular than any incoming president in the history of polling. It’s the out-of-power party that tends to gain in midterm elections.
If Trump were wise, he would govern with some humility. The question he faces is how to turn his minority into a majority. The answer is to reach out to the majority of Americans who didn’t vote for him and don’t approve of him — to show them, in word and deed, that they were wrong about him.
But that’s not going to happen. In his every move since winning the election, Trump has shown he’ll govern as the most extreme version of himself. So far, he has made Breitbart’s Steve Bannon his chief strategist, RNC Chair Reince Priebus his chief of staff, and retired Gen. Michael Flynn his national security adviser, and announced that Sen. Jeff Sessions will be his attorney general.
So far, there’s been no effort, at all, to reach out to the other side, or to play against type. There’s been nothing akin to Barack Obama’s announcement, which came this very week in 2008, that he intended to retain George W. Bush’s defense secretary, Robert Gates.
All of which leaves an opening for Democrats. If Trump doesn’t intend to represent the majority of the country, then they can. They don’t hold much power in Congress, but they hold more than Republicans did in 2009, and Republicans were able to cause plenty of problems for Obama’s agenda.
Remember the Obama-Boehner fights, and negotiations? They seem quaint now, don’t they?Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images
Democrats should insist, in both appointments and legislation, that Trump govern with some consideration for the majority of Americans who voted for someone else. That should be the cost for their cooperation. Democrats should force both the media and Republicans to take seriously the fact that Trump is governing without a majority, or even a plurality, of the American people behind him, and that that carries with it a responsibility to govern modestly.
This is nothing more, and nothing less, than asking Trump to absorb the weight of the office he holds, and the message of the election he won. Trump is now president of the entire United States of America, not just the people who voted for him, and he needs to act that way. It’s the opposition party’s duty to remind him of that.
So far, there’s been little evidence that the media, the Democrats, or the Republicans really appreciate this. The media is still trying to understand how Trump won. Democrats are still trying to understand how Clinton lost. And Republicans are thrilled that they’re now in power. Everyone is so shocked by the election’s unexpected outcome that they’ve overlooked the actual results.
There’s been a lot of talk about “normalizing” Trump, but this is more fundamental: To ignore the election results and act like the strongest possible version of Trump’s agenda was endorsed by most voters re-historicizes Trump. It makes the election into something it wasn’t, and gives Trump license to govern in a way he shouldn’t.
Elections decide who wins power. They don’t decide how it should be wielded. If Trump governs in a way that respects the center of opinion in the country — a center Democrats appear to hold — Democrats should work with him. If he isn’t, then they should keep pointing that out, and force him to govern alone. They owe their voters nothing less.
Correction: An earlier version of this post said that Democrats looked likely to overtake Republicans in total House votes. That was based on bad information — Republicans are up by about 3.6 million, and while votes are still being counted, Democrats look unlikely to close that gap.