At the height of its influence, the tea party had the GOP in a vise-grip. But liberal activists have a long way to go to match that sway over Democrats, if this week’s budget deal is any indication.
Left-leaning groups that spent months pressing Democrats to fight for the young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers were stiff-armed yet again by the party’s leaders. They cut a bipartisan budget deal that left House Democrats scrambling to square their advocacy for immigrants with the party’s fear of shouldering the blame for a second government shutdown in a matter of weeks.
Liberal groups groused that their allies in Congress had yet again squandered their leverage, bowing to Republican promises to debate immigration but not necessarily to pass legislation. But Democrats seemed unconcerned about angering the party’s left flank.
“My boss is the 700,000 [constituents] who I represent. That’s who I report to,” Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) said. “I don’t report to anybody out here.”
Indeed, Democrats on both ends of the party’s ideological spectrum said that prodding from the left had little bearing on their vote. Seventy-three House Democrats and 35 Senate Democrats backed the package.
Unlike during the tea party wave, when conservative activists went after “squishy” incumbents in primaries and derailed a farm bill, groups on the left have been reluctant to take on sitting senators and House members who defy them.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) recalled being pressed two weeks ago to reject a deal to reopen the government. Nonetheless, “I voted yes,” he said.
“I pay attention to everybody,” said Brown, who’s also spurned calls from the grass roots to champion a Medicaid-for-all effort this Congress. “If the suggestion is if I’m spooked by them or they affect my voting record, the answer is of course not.”
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who took heat from immigrant-rights activists for supporting a short-term spending bill in December, described liberal groups as integral to understanding the substance of immigration and other issues — but less helpful with political strategy.
“We listen carefully to them on matters of policy,” Kaine said in an interview. “But often on matters of tactics and strategy, those of us who have been here a while and kind of know it … on policy yes, tactics less.”
Few liberal groups clamoring for action on Dreamers have pressed reluctant Democrats harder than Indivisible and United We Dream, the latter of which is dedicated to representing undocumented immigrants affected by President Donald Trump’s move to end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Those two groups joined the National Immigration Law Center on a withering statement Thursday that blasted any lawmaker supporting a budget agreement without winning aid for Dreamers for “voting to advance Trump’s white supremacist agenda.”
But across the board, liberal activist leaders greeted Democratic support for the budget deal with a grimace. Some warned that the willingness to give in to GOP leaders risked opening up a lasting rift with the anti-Trump resistance that has powered Democrats to early election gains from Virginia to Alabama.
“The irony is that by showing weakness and a complete lack of backbone for the benefit of a few red-state members of Congress, Democratic leaders are depressing the base in every other district in America,” Progressive Change Campaign Committee co-founder Adam Green said. “Including the ones needed to take back the majority.”
Perhaps the biggest tactical rift between Democratic activists and lawmakers came last month, when the party’s grass roots applauded the decision to force a government shutdown over inaction on helping Dreamers. Senate Democrats blinked three days later and ended the closure, claiming victory in a promised floor vote on immigration from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
The fold drew howls from activists, who wanted to see elected Democrats fight harder against President Donald Trump. Some of the party’s leading presidential contenders voted against reopening the government then and remained in that camp on Thursday as a show of support for Dreamers.
But for other Democrats, the logic of linking the plight of undocumented immigrants to government funding was problematic from the start.
“What happened [during the shutdown] is Meals on Wheels stopped, health care stopped,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, a member of Democratic leadership, said in an interview.
“I know the Dreamers don’t want to be pitted against seniors and children and so on,” she added. “I appreciate the intensity in the fact that they want something dramatic, but I don’t believe that’s a good long-term strategy for them to be able to get support.”
Liberal activists’ biggest imprint is perhaps on the House, where they have the ability to wield considerable influence over an individual lawmaker’s district. That’s a lot harder to do with a senator representing an entire state.
It’s also in the House that Democratic incumbents have tended to face the left’s ultimate threat — a credible progressive primary challenger — even though most have avoided that fate so far this Congress. Rep. Dan Lipinski, a centrist pro-life Democrat from Illinois, is facing a formidable challenge from the left. His opponent, Marie Newman, has won endorsements from two of Lipinski’s home-state Democratic colleagues, Reps. Jan Schakowsky and Luis Gutierrez.
Illustrating that reality, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) spoke on the House floor for more than eight hours in defense of Dreamers Wednesday, reassuring her angry base that she wasn’t abandoning the fight. Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), chief of the Republican Study Committee, said Thursday that Pelosi had “walked out on the ledge” for her party’s activists while Senate Democrats were trying to bring her back in the fold.
Some Democrats and activists said one reason the left under Trump may never get as aggressive as the tea party under Obama is a basic difference in DNA. Conservatives are fundamentally suspicious of government; liberals have a more favorable view. Even as they held out to trigger a shutdown last month, Democrats kept pressing for shorter-term spending votes to keep the government running.
Lawmakers as well as activists pointed to the unity Democrats have shown on taxes and health care as the base demanded they take on Trump.
“I certainly don’t see our party’s relationship as adversarial with these groups,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said ahead of the budget vote. “We’ll have differences. … But we’ll be together on a lot more stuff than fighting each other on.”
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) agreed, acknowledging that “we may have our internal frustrations over strategies and tactics” within what he described as “our family.”
“But we are all working for the same thing,” he added. “And there’s nothing so unifying as [defeating] Donald Trump.”
Some Democrats said senators might be more willing to defy the base because 10 of their members are up for reelection this fall in states that Trump won. That could change once the midterms are over and the 2020 presidential election heats up.
“Given the tough Senate map and gerrymandered House districts, Democrats have a tricky two-step to pull off, because the strategy for winning in 2018 is probably not the same strategy for winning in 2020,” said Adam Jentleson, a former top aide to ex-Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid.
Still, one centrist House Democrat who got flak from the left last year, Rep. Scott Peters of California, said that progressive groups “have a big effect.”
“Every person who comes here has to decide what to do with his or her vote. You take a lot of inputs,” Peters said.
But he added that he understood why Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) didn’t bow to pressure from the left to insist on a Dreamers fix as part of a budget deal.
“I think Sen. Schumer doesn’t want to be seen as someone who’s in charge of closing the government down,” Peters said, “over something that many people think is an important but separate issue.”
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