Leaderless and lacking a strategy, top party officials worry they're not ready for Trump's first 100 days.
12/12/16 05:06 AM EST
As Donald Trump’s inauguration draws near, Democrats fear they remain woefully unprepared to fight the new president’s agenda.
The party loses its standard-bearer once President Barack Obama leaves office, and the Democratic National Committee won’t get a permanent chairman and staff until March, two months into the presidency. That Democratic power vacuum has raised concerns about the party's ability to provide a united message — or even to stand up a centralized rapid response operation — for the incoming president’s first 100 days in office.
Their worst nightmare is that Trump, ever the showman, will define his opening act with little unified resistance.
“It’s a very serious concern. I just went on TV twice today on Fox and MSNBC on the Cabinet appointments and I winged it,” said Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor and 2008 presidential candidate. “You need something right now. Trump every day is doing something outrageous. What do we do? Criticize everything he does? Hold back a bit? I know we need to develop an economic message but that's long term. We need something now. Most of the Democrats I talk to are down, and they're asking who’s in charge.”
Individual elected officials, led by Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown, have already signaled their intention to put loud and sustained pressure on the president-elect through a series of speeches, statements, TV appearances, op-eds and on social media. But they are doing so without the benefit of any partywide communication about a coordinated message for their Trump barbs — the kind of guidance and direction so recently provided by Obama or Hillary Clinton and her campaign surrogate operation. In some corners of Capitol Hill, senior senators have even taken to blindly calling advocacy groups in town, asking where they can find relevant opposition research against Trump’s Cabinet picks.
DNC Vice Chairman R.T. Rybak stressed the urgency of the moment.
“The importance of these first few weeks is illustrated by my memory of the first few months of the Reagan administration, where radical change came so fast that it was difficult for opponents to know where to fight, which battles to pick,” said Rybak. “There’s a need to affect these issues immediately, and there’s also the related issue of how to reposition, how to be the party we need to be."
In other words, said the former Minneapolis mayor, “It’s going to be tougher for there to be a unified voice while we’re going through a change.”
Democrats are hardly without any response. The DNC’s opposition research department has been working overtime since Trump was elected, while the communications staff cranks out a nonstop stream of pro-Obama and anti-Trump news releases. Party officials have also been in touch with Senate and House leadership communications and research teams to work out the plan moving forward, particularly as Trump seeks to confirm his Cabinet picks.
But the party was caught flat-footed by Trump’s victory, and there was no detailed contingency plan in the event Hillary Clinton was defeated. The widespread expectation was that President Clinton’s handpicked choice for DNC chairman would take over on Jan. 21, a day after the Inauguration. That Democrat — likely a prominent figure practiced in both fundraising and television pontificating — would be backed by a building brimming with operatives shipped down from Clinton’s Brooklyn campaign headquarters.
Working in tandem with a refurbished political wing of the White House, the staff would be tasked with readying the party for a furious attempt to limit Senate losses and gain back governor’s mansions in 2018, ahead of long-brewing plans to reverse Republican redistricting gains two years later. Parts of the party’s short-term rapid response operation would be outsourced to Correct The Record, a super PAC established to back Clinton during her campaign.
But Correct the Record — which had clashed with the DNC under former Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz — has now been shut down. The redistricting push has been largely handed over to a new group helmed by former Attorney General Eric Holder. And the rest of the plan was summarily dismantled by Trump’s win, sending the central committee into a period of uncertainty as it now searches for its next chair, a process that won’t be finalized until the end of February.
“Who’s the messenger? It’s bigger than his first 100 days. If Trump controls the message, which he has continued to do and will only do more as the sitting president of the United States, this could snowball into a very big issue for Democrats and independent voters out there,” said Boyd Brown, a South Carolina Democrat who until recently was a DNC member. “We are totally letting him control the message and control the story. He’s setting traps and we’re taking the bait. Carrier? Prime example. We’ve got him on this Russia deal, but we’ll find a way to mess it up."
“Maybe an emergency meeting of the party needs to happen in December to appoint a message chairman, and then go through the regular process of nuts and bolts for the February [DNC chair election],” said Richardson. “Something needs to be done.”
At the moment, the DNC is working to occupy some version of the central role it had in the waning days of George W. Bush’s presidency.
“It’s been eight years, and I’ve been through this moment before with the party: When you don’t control the White House, the DNC plays a very important messaging role,” said a senior Democratic Party official. “When a campaign season ends, the DNC picks up the role left by the candidate. We know we have to take on this larger role, and we’re raising money [for that].”
“We’re in the midst of a transition, but that’s not going to take away from our very important role in helping directly, whether it’s helping the White House, on Capitol Hill, or putting out our own strategic messaging,” added the official, noting the nearly 200 releases that have come out of the DNC building since Election Day.
But with Washington crowded with Democrats who weren’t around the last time the party was so thoroughly booted from power, the reflex is not to look straight to the national committee — which has led to a chorus of confused whispers from senators and House members looking for guidance.
“This is not a new scenario,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s former top adviser. “Without the White House, parties always feel their way. The congressional leaders and party chair have some claim to messaging, but other voices will emerge and full clarity won’t be achieved until a new nominee is chosen and a Democratic president is elected.”
One group trying to step into the perceived void is American Bridge, the main Democratic opposition research organization, which last week revealed preliminary plans to launch an anti-Trump rapid response and research operation. The group, founded by Clinton ally David Brock, has been in close contact with many of Clinton’s top donors as he searches for funding.
Bridge will continue providing the DNC with its opposition research, said Jessica Mackler, the group’s president. And absent a nominee or White House, explained longtime party strategist James Carville, the new entity will be built to provide Democrats with messaging directions — a role traditionally filled by the DNC in previous periods when Republicans held the White House.
“There is no campaign in place, so our ability to drive a narrative won’t be restrained in that sense,” he said on a conference call last week.
Nonetheless, in the meantime Democrats are publicly keeping up a bold face, and many continue to insist that the opening of a Trump administration in fact provides the party with a chance to unify in opposition, as Republicans have in the past.
“Any time the White House is held by one party, you see the other party in Congress assert itself and lead the opposition. Many of us who are younger Democrats in the House are especially energized about playing a leading role in opposing Trump,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Brendan Boyle. “You will see Democrats on Capitol Hill lead the rapid response to Trump. The Republicans in Congress during 2009-2010 did a masterful job of this."
“We’ll have a competition among the next, young Democratic leaders about who has the sharpest message moving forward,” predicted former South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges. “The Republicans, for the last eight years, had plenty of people competing to be the voice of the party, and it’s not like they were waiting for [RNC chairman] Reince Priebus’ memo before they started talking."
Still, the question of message coordination is an immediate one for those who are faced with spouting the party line with the Trump train barreling down the tracks.
In the words of one Democrat who remains a frequent television commentator, but who has noticed the ranks of prominent party surrogates shrinking as the number of talking points and centralized messaging memos wane, “People are afraid to go out there.”