Democrats still can't quite configure a Trump-era strategy.
The president's electoral victory left them grasping for a way to recapture the support of working-class voters, but also injected a renewed sense of purpose into the party's increasingly hardline base. Now, Democrats are stuck trying to placate their demanding progressive grassroots while also appealing to an important group of less ideological voters in Trump-friendly states.
This seems, at least for now, to explain why party leadership plunged the government into a shutdown over protections for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program on Friday, only to cave by Monday and allow passage of a spending bill that did not include those protections. Most vulnerable red-state senators voted to reopen the government, while most blue-state progressives angling for potential 2020 bids voted against it, likely anticipating frustration from the base.
When that base convened for Netroots Nation last summer, progressives insisted the solution to Democrats' ailing appeal in the Rust Belt was to tack even further Left. "I got 220,000 votes from people who also voted for Donald Trump," failed Missouri Senate candidate Jason Kander told the crowd. "I did not do that by pretending to be a conservative Democrat." Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., dramatically promised the party "won't move back" to the center. "We are looking ahead and we will not, we shall not, we must not, allow anyone to turn back the clock," said Warren.
Tell that to Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., or Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., or Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., or Sen. Heidi Heitkemp, D-N.D., each of whom is a facing a tough re-election battle in a state Trump won last cycle, and each of whom voted against the shutdown on Friday, then voted to reopen the government on Monday. For good reason, the GOP believes the more it's able to tie the Donnellys and McCaskills of Congress to firebrands like Warren, the less appealing they will be to voters in their home states. For their part, Donnelly and McCaskill seem to agree.
On the flip side, facing a competitive primary challenger from her Left, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California last month reversed course to vote against a stopgap spending bill and shut down the government just before Christmas. Is there a world where Feinstein and McCaskill both survive in the party?
At Netroots, I struck up a conversation with Randy Bryce, the mustachioed ironworker running to "repeal and replace" Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan not far from where I grew up in southeastern Wisconsin. After he addressed the crowd (to enthusiastic applause), the conference promptly transitioned into a panel on the importance of "intersectionality" featuring DNC Deputy Chair Keith Ellison, a Minnesota representative, and Kimberlé Crenshaw, the feminist scholar credited with introducing the philosophy back in the 1980s. I asked Bryce how it's possible to pitch a radical concept like intersectionality to working-class people in his district. As someone following Kander's advice would have advised, Bryce didn't run from intersectionality or hedge on its importance. Instead he embraced the idea — "It's about including everybody," he told me.
I don't mean to overstate the significance of that anecdote. In the moment, though, it struck me as powerful that progressives seem to want a man they believe represents the future of the Democratic Party's Rust Belt outreach to look like an ironworker but speak like a professor.
Most members of Congress, and certainly most Democrats, appear willing to codify DACA protections. But a CBS News poll released last week found even a majority of respondents who favored DACA did not believe it was worth shutting down the government over.
Who did? Hardcore progressives in the Democratic Party's base. And that's why it happened.
Democrats are between a rock and a hard place. It's a conundrum that plagued Hillary Clinton in 2016 and will challenge whichever candidate wins the party's contest to take Trump on in 2020.
Is the choice between pleasing Feinstein's and McCaskill's constituents a false one? Can unapologetic progressives like Kander or Bryce, Democrats who embrace the base — DACA shutdowns, intersectionality panels, and all — woo working-class voters with their authenticity? I certainly don't have the answer.
Given their decision to shut down the government, then reopen it after the weekend without securing DACA protections in the spending bill as the base demanded, Democrats don't seem to have the answer either.