No Clowning Around for Schumer

As Los Angelenos rioted after the acquittal of policemen caught on camera beating him, Rodney King asked, “Can we all get along?” When it comes to working with the incoming Trump administration, the answer for Democrats is a stark and obvious no—unless you’re a clown.

As Charles Schumer, the new Senate Democratic leader, should have just realized. While most sane leaders slept, unless they were dealing with some significant development, President-Elect Donald Trump started tweeting about Obamacare’s supposed failures and how it was “a lie from the beginning,” but Democrats won’t fix it. He singled out “head clown Chuck Schumer.”

Two days before, Schumer made his maiden speech as minority leader and declared, “To the extent that the President-elect and the Republican majority pursue policies that help Americans and are consistent with our values, we stand ready and willing to work with them. Jesse Ferguson, who served as deputy national press secretary for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, wrote an op-ed for USA Today in which he condemned obstruction for the sake of obstruction. He said, “If our only plan is to make government non-functional like Republicans did to us, then we will end up invalidating the basic progressive thesis: Government action can improve people’s lives.”

But Ferguson also cited the January 20, 2009, dinner at which Republican leaders—including former House majority leader Eric Cantor, current majority leader Kevin McCarthy, and pollster Frank Luntz, who continues to be employed by the once highly respected CBS News –agreed to oppose everything that newly inaugurated President Barack Obama proposed. As he said, “It wasn’t a policy dinner about their ideological concerns …. It was a political dinner about obstruction as a tactic.”

Ferguson is right about the need to stand up for progressive values. Democrats can and should make policy proposals—just as Hillary Clinton did during the campaign, just as Bernie Sanders also did during the nomination process. The media largely ignored them to pay attention to the horse race, to personal attacks on both sides, and to whether Trump was awake or asleep. Amid the jokes about Clinton being on message in the debates, few discussed how she kept directing people to her website for details; those details certainly weren’t forthcoming from the failed political media.

And Democrats should make those proposals as interesting and exciting as possible so that they get attention. Press conferences with pie charts won’t do it. Directly attacking the incoming president’s policies with policies of their own will help, in part because he cannot and will not control himself. He will direct attention to them.

But what Schumer said and what Ferguson wrote beg a question: what have Republicans proposed for the past eight years that would, first, help Americans, and, second, be consistent with the Democratic party’s values? The answer is hard to find, and not just because of what Republicans stand for—and as their nomination of Trump shows, they will stand for anything. And it isn’t simply because Republicans were in the opposition. Historically, examples of Democrats and Republicans working across the aisle abound—and not like Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill having drinks, but serious work, as in Senate minority leader Everett Dirksen, a Republican, helping President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, helping get votes for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or Democrats O’Neill and Dan Rostenkowski trying to produce tax reform with Reagan in 1986.

For the past eight years, Republicans neither proposed legitimate policies nor were willing to work with Obama on issues where common ground might have been found. Who received the blame for that? Some members of the media have criticized Obama for not reaching out enough to Republicans, ignoring that when then-Speaker John Boehner played a round of golf with the president, his party’s base went ballistic.

That isn’t a party that’s interested in cooperation. Democrats need to make clear to their elected officials that they aren’t interested in cooperating, either. In this case, though, it isn’t political. It is ideological, and it is for the sake of the country and the planet. And Democrats like Schumer need to make the cases for both action and obstruction, or they’ll just be a group of clowns. Indeed, the president-elect already thinks they are.

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About Michael Green

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he teaches U.S. history. His specialties include the Civil War era, political history, and western history, especially Nevada and Las Vegas. He is a former newspaper reporter and editor who writes columns for Vegas Seven and Nevada's Washington Watch, as well as a history feature, Nevada Yesterdays, for Nevada Public Radio. He serves on the boards of The Mob Museum, the Institute for a Progressive Nevada, Preserve Nevada, and the Nevada Center for Civic Engagement.
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