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Senate Democrats aren't spoiling for a fight. They're spoiling for 10 — and that's a problem.

If they want to compete with Trump, the party’s leaders need a clear storyline.

Sen. Sanders, Schumer, And House Minority Leader Pelosi Present Petition Demanding Trump And GOP Not Change Medicare Benefits
In interviews, Democratic aides on the Hill admit the party may have a problem concentrating on one issue enough to break through.
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Senate Democrats aren't facing the question of exactly where to take on Donald Trump next year. They’re deciding where they shouldn’t.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign struggled with the same problem during the presidential race: Trump offers so many openings to exploit, it’s difficult to tackle any one of them effectively.

Come January, Senate Democrats will have a list of options. There will be a parade of potentially unpopular Cabinet picks (Steve Mnuchin of Goldman Sachs for Treasury secretary; Andrew Puzder, head of Carl’s Jr., for labor secretary) coming to the Hill for confirmation hearings. Media organizations will continue to discover and unpack Trump’s many conflicts of interest around his business dealings. And, of course, Trump will still be Trump, sure to create mini controversies from his tweets alone.

In private conversations, some Democrats on the Hill admit that the party is already falling into an old trap. “We are often way too schizophrenic on all of these issues, and we just sort of throw things at the wall in a scattershot and incoherent way as they come up,” says one Democratic aide on the Hill. “We have to get smart and begin recognizing what attacks are sticking and which ones aren’t.”

Democrats are in the minority, but they’ve still got some weapons in their arsenal, especially when it comes to the coming fights over Cabinet appointments. Aides say they plan to use two tried-and-true strategies to unleash them: the outside game — getting the public, especially Republicans, so riled up that Washington is forced to listen — and the inside game, lobbying in Washington in hopes of peeling off Republicans.

Democrats and the outside game

There is no shortage of Democratic outrage at Trump. The key for the opposition, they say, is to resonate with voters who supported Trump because he ran as an outsider, a populist, and a pro–working class candidate.

In interviews, Senate Democratic aides say one answer may be to hammer Trump for failing to live up to his campaign pledges to break from the most unpopular elements of Republican orthodoxy.

“The story is something like, ‘Trump said he was a different kind of Republican on entitlements. Then he nominates the architect of a Medicare privatization scheme to be HHS secretary,” says one Senate Democratic aide close to leadership.

The second story Democrats might try to tell through the Cabinet fights is how they illustrate the meaninglessness of Trump’s plan to “drain the swamp.” Trump promised on the campaign trail to be free from the influence of outside donors, yet his team has been stuffed full of lobbyists. His business empire stands to benefit in a big way from his presidency.

“A lot of the nominees are going to be subject to the same conflict-of-interest problems as Trump,” the aide said.

Incoming presidential administrations — at least historically — are often harried and unusually sensitive to intense public backlash. That gives the opposition an opening.

“The strategy is to make fighting for the appointment too costly to the incoming administration,” says Jared Bernstein, a former economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden. “You come into the White House, you’re trying to set up your operation, and all of a sudden you have to devote a lot of your bandwidth and energy to supporting a Cabinet post. If the pressure is strong enough, that can move the calculus. If you have to spend a week or two on it, and if you have other people in the wings, you may just throw them under the bus instead.”

Peeling off moderate Republican senators

The inside game may point in a very different direction. Instead of putting the priority on generating a national outcry, it entails lobbying individual moderate Republicans to try convincing them to buck their party.

And that’s only possible if Senate Democrats themselves stay completely unified. That itself is no sure bet, given that at least one senator in Democratic leadership — West Virginia Blue Dog Joe Manchin — is already saying the party shouldn’t try too hard to delay Trump’s Cabinet. (Politico says the votes are already there for Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for attorney general, who maintains a collegial relationship with the Senate — racist comments in his past aside.)

Beyond taking the case to the individual senators, the inside game also involves going to interest groups or other big organizations on Capitol Hill and trying to get them to turn Republicans’ incentives.

Alone, there’s no single group with the kind of pull to make that happen. But, speaking on the condition of anonymity, one Senate Democratic aide offered suggestions of what this could look like:

  • Groups that represent seniors have a lot of clout. If something emerged from Tom Price’s record on Medicare that got them to take a stand, it could make something of a difference.
  • Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a typically crucial swing Republican vote, won some praise for her defense of Planned Parenthood funding in spite of her caucus’s position. Pro-choice organizations may feel urged to rescind that backing in the face of a particularly pro-life Trump nominee.
  • The business community and Chamber of Commerce, which are typically supportive of congressional Republicans, could be lobbied to break with their allies over Sessions. As Vox’s Dara Lind notes, Sessions wants to reduce immigration (both legal and illegal), while most big business groups want just the opposite. “They see it 180 degrees differently from Sessions. So there may be some room there,” an aide says.
  • Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican, hails from a very purple and very Hispanic state that just elected a Democratic senator in a year friendly to the GOP. Can an immigration group effectively press him?

Being realistic, it’s hard to imagine any of the major Cabinet picks not getting cleared. Only 4 percent of all presidential Cabinet appointments have ever not gone through, says Jon Bond, a political scientist at Texas A&M University.

“And most of those failed because they were withdrawn — either because they found questionable activity, illegal activity, or some real ideological extremism was found that they'd raise so much controversy the administration would just withdraw,” Bond says in an interview.

We’re going to learn a lot about what the opposition to Trump looks like

After the election, it was hard not to run into a liberal who wasn’t eager to tell you that they want Senate Democrats to “fight back.” “Hold Trump accountable” became the rallying cry du jour. Activists are abuzz about leading “the resistance” to the Trump era.

David Gergen, a CNN commentator who served key White House roles under both Republican and Democratic administrations, laid out how to think about what it takes for a presidency to react to public disapproval of a Cabinet choice:

It takes an organized outcry, and right now there are a lot of people who are getting aroused or negative about what Trump people are up to. But it's still inchoate — the opposition, it hasn’t really formed. You’ll need a specific issue, something that hasn’t been talked about yet — policy X or decision Y or past thing Z — to just take off and set off a firestorm.

The talk shows and social media and op-eds — that's where the boiling starts. But it takes more than that to get things to erupt. It takes either people in the streets or polls that are really wildly lopsided or phone calls from unexpected sources.

To get this done, Democrats will need to pick their priorities, craft their message, stay united, and create public outcry that will speak to a wide enough audience inside the Senate. The best test yet of whether they can do so is fast approaching.

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