A Game Democrats Can’t Play

Democrats are at a disadvantage in a game where the other side casually, nonchalantly breaks the rules and doesn’t get punished. Such selective impunity is emblematic of how lopsided our current political discourse is. A Democrat gets punished for an unfortunate slip of tongue, a minor, inconsequential protocol violation where a Republican, no matter how badly compromised, can always count either on a loud, wide-eyed support or a quiet shrug of the shoulder. Democrats, true to their small-d democratic creed, with their commitment to equal representation, are obliged to feel and display compassion even to those who openly hate them. Hillary was forced to display contrition to those who chanted ‘Lock Her Up’, because she understood democratic norms all too well. Democrats, in their attempts to be and be seen as fair arbiters, are thus forced to be adults in the room. But by being adults they thus close many doors – tactical and strategic – that Republicans punch open with their foot without a second thought. As much as I would like them to, Democrats can’t be like McConnell if they ever find themselves in a position of a vacant SCOTUS seat and a majority. The paths that are open for Republicans are all but closed to the Democrats due to our different temperaments and understanding of the stakes involved. For the GOP that stakes are quick tactical victories; for Democrats the stakes are less tangible but more consequential: the democratic processes, the civic discourse, the health and survival of the Republic.

This is the reason why I don’t want to blame misogyny on Hillary’s loss. Republicans don’t have problems with women in power as long as those women are Republican. Hillary lost because she was a Democrat not because she was a woman. The only way where her being a woman came into play is that she respected the rules of the game. It’s a woman’s trait. Many women have tales where they ostensibly, religiously follow the rules in their own personal and professional lives, only to be outdone on the finish line by a freewheeling, smirking brat. But then the same is true of any democratic politician – the respect for norms, the adherence to the rules, appropriate consequences for transgressions. As a Democrat Hillary played by the established norms, by the old rules while the other side dispensed with civility while demanding civility from her. Hillary had no choice but to oblige. She had to cross the abyss on the thinnest of ropes, while her opponent was drunk driving a Camaro on the empty parking lot.

The first impulse would be to advise Democrats to start breaking the rules and norms the way GOP has been doing for decades. This is not a good idea if only because Democrats can never be as good at this game as the Republicans. We would get disgusted and get the foot off the gas pedal just at the time when the right-wing loud mouths are only getting into the groove. We police ourselves too well, given the swift outrage coming from our own ranks if one of us gets out of line.

I think what Democrats can do for now is to learn to mind the context. Bill Maher slip of tongue happen not because he’s a white supremacist who’s hiding under a civil mask, but because he wanted to make a point, however clumsy, in the service of a progressive cause. We have to learn to forgive our sinners the way Paul Ryan forgives Trump. Bill Maher, or any careless leftie’s words won’t deprive millions of people of their health care. Standing up for our own are just baby steps that must be taken before we can even come close to pulling the McConnellesque legislative coups.

However tempting it is to want to jump into the mud ring, I think we have to slug it out as the adults in the room. If we decide to finally employ to the same dirty tricks as the GOP has, we will end up like the eager party goers who were finally let into the nightclub at 4am only to find all the liquor has been drunk, all the fashionable crowd gone and DJ wrapping up the equipment. We can’t outclown the clowns. And by the time we decide to play dirty that game will become so old and tired that Republicans will decide to put their ‘sober statesman’ suits on and play a different game. We should not let them. We’re the fucking sober statesmen. That’s our turf.

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Possible Paths for Democrats

The writer I respect, Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine, argues that collaborating with Trump will hurt Democrats politically. As I mentioned in my previous post I tend to disagree with that assessment and I gave my reasons. After reading his article and thinking over his arguments, I still think the cautious approach of picking our battles as opposed to a blanket obstruction is a correct one.

The GOP now controls all three branches of government, but the GOP grip on power is a fragile one. There will be three major forces at play that may start tearing GOP apart as soon as Trump assumes power: Trump and his loyal team; his base with their expectations; and Paul Ryan with his fiscal agenda. These three forces are innately antagonistic. Trump values loyalty above expertise and he revels in the adoration of his base. These two camps will be together for a while, as it takes time, years perhaps, before they can really get disappointed and abandon him.

But then there’s Paul Ryan. Well, Paul Ryan and Steve Bannon – Trump’s new chief strategist – don’t quite get along, to put it mildly. While at Breitbart Bannon’s goal was explicitly to “destroy Paul Ryan’s political career.” Alt-right, and their chief mastermind Bannon are not necessarily fiscally conservative. Bannon has no love for Ayn Rand. They are white nationalists, yes, but that doesn’t automatically translate into supporting tight fiscal agenda so beloved by modern-day GOP. It’s the same story with white nationalist uprisings in Europe: they’re not railing up against taxes per se but rather against immigrants. Paul Ryan’s support of Trump, reluctant before the elections and now fully vested, hinges on Trumps signing off on his tax cuts bills and nothing else (as Ryan doesn’t care for the white rural nationalists and their grievances, but rather for the donor class and their concerns).

When Trump can’t deliver to his base what he has promised, having an obstructionist Chuck Schumer could come in quite handy in order to shift the blame. Why give them such an easy escape in a form of Schumer (A New York Jew! Global conspiracy!) when there’s another ready target available – Paul Ryan. Trump’s base (and his loyal team) doesn’t hold any special love for Ryan and Congress in general.

If Trump’s policies turn out to be a standard run-of-the mill GOP agenda: tax cuts for the rich, destruction of the safety net and regulations, then Schumer should exploit the gap between Trump’s base and Paul Ryan, who would be the public face of this agenda. Here, voices like Bernie and Elizabeth Warren would be indispensable. They can really get the message out to the Rust belt areas to tell them that they’ve been had. And what will Bannon and his alt-right attack dogs choose to do in this situation? Attack Schumer or attack Paul Ryan? Remember, Bannon has a major beef with Ryan.

But if Trump’s agenda will follow up on his campaign promises, which are essentially anti-Ryan and anti-standard GOP (preserve Medicare and SS, tariffs and protectionism), then the assumption can be made that he’s, indeed, not a Republican and he doesn’t care for a standard Republican platform and won’t care if a Congress deeply wedded to these ideas suffers defeat at the polls. Schumer can and should work together with this kind of Trump. This way there’s a good chance the alt-right will stay quiet. Schumer is working with Trump for the little guy and not the elites, you see.

Just throwing some thoughts out there.