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Are Democrats becoming more like Republicans?

Democrats are adopting tactics they condemned in the Obama years. But they still want to compromise.

President Trump Departs White House En Route To North Dakota For Tax Reform Speech Alex Wong/Getty Images

On October 7, 2013, President Barack Obama took the podium at the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and made the case to the American people that compromise, not ideological showdown, was what the country needed.

America was in the midst of a weeks-long government shutdown, a fiasco triggered by the Republican Party’s demand to defund the Affordable Care Act in exchange for funding the government, and Obama’s remarks from that moment are worth reading today. They show how much the Democratic Party has changed — and how much it hasn’t:

I heard a lot of talk over the weekend that the real problem is, is that the President will not negotiate. Well, let me tell you something — I have said from the start of the year that I’m happy to talk to Republicans about anything related to the budget. There’s not a subject that I am not willing to engage in, work on, negotiate, and come up with commonsense compromises on.

What I’ve said is that I cannot do that under the threat that if Republicans don’t get 100 percent of their way, they’re going to either shut down the government or they are going to default on America’s debt so that America for the first time in history does not pay its bills. That is not something I will do. We’re not going to establish that pattern.

In this, you hear Obama make two arguments. One is that budget negotiations should be limited to policy “related to the budget,” that the functioning of the federal government shouldn’t be used as leverage on other policy issues. The second is that Obama is ready and willing to compromise, and that the problem is Republican unwillingness to cut a deal.

Today, Democrats still believe half of that formulation.

On Friday, congressional Democrats voted en masse against funding the government’s continued operations. They did so not because of anything in the bill, but because of something that wasn’t in it — a deal to grant legal status to the young unauthorized immigrants known as DREAMers. This has left Democrats in an uncomfortable position: In holding government funding hostage to another policy priority, they are employing the same tactics they condemned Republicans for using in the past. Indeed, in 2013, Sen. Chuck Schumer used immigration as an example of a non-budgetary policy that it would be ridiculous to shut the government down over.

The emerging deal to end the shutdown doesn’t change the underlying strategy: Democrats will vote to fund the government for three weeks on the promise of a DREAMer vote, but they are reserving the right to oppose funding again if either the process or the outcome angers them. As was true for Republicans before them, Democrats are now using the continued funding of the government as leverage for their policy priorities.

“Democrats, little bit by little bit, are becoming more like the Republicans,” wrote Michael Tomasky in the New York Times.

It is a signal of the Democratic Party’s shift toward tougher tactics in the Trump years that some of the loudest voices pushing congressional Democrats to refuse to fund the government without securing legal status for DREAMers are the former Obama staffers who now host the podcast Pod Save America. The group, which runs Crooked Media, has whipped votes, kept tallies, exhorted listeners to call wavering congressional Democrats, and termed the elected officials who agree with them “the Fight Club” and those on the fence “the Waffle House.” They even filmed themselves calling the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a moderate California Democrat, to push her toward confrontation.

Protect Dreamers and CHIP

Trump rejected a bipartisan government funding deal. We asked our Senators to protect Dreamers and children's health insurance, not Republicans in Congress. You should too! The deadline is Friday. Let us know what they say. We'll be keeping track here:

Posted by Crooked Media on Wednesday, January 17, 2018

In this, the Crooked Media hosts have lots of allies — virtually the entirety of the Democrats allied activists and interest group organizations are demanding a hard line. This basic dynamic — outside media and activist groups driving members of Congress to use the continued functioning of the federal government as leverage — is exactly what Democrats condemned the Republican Party for in the Obama years.

Where Democrats remain different from Republicans

What Democrats haven’t adopted is the GOP’s policy intransigence. Where Republicans in the Obama years demanded absurd ransoms — like the complete defunding of the president’s signature legislative achievement — Democrats are asking Trump to accept the kind of deal he said he wanted all along, a deal key congressional Republicans have already embraced. The problem is that Trump refuses to make a deal.

“I’ll take a bucket, take bricks, and I’ll start building it myself,” said Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), of Trump’s wall, which Gutiérrez loathes as an idea but which he’s willing to fund to protect DREAMers. “We will dirty our hands, in order for the DREAMers to have a clean future in America.”

Indeed, it’s the Trump administration that has unexpectedly fought a series of bipartisan immigration compromises that trade legal status for DREAMers — which Trump says he supports! — for border enforcement, funding for the US-Mexico border wall, and assorted other immigration concessions.

“Every time we have a proposal, it is yanked back by staff members,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, told reporters Sunday afternoon. “As long as Stephen Miller is in charge of negotiating immigration, we are going nowhere.”

But congressional Republicans have broadly backed the White House. “The guys here are together on our position that we’re not negotiating,” said Republican Study Committee Chair Mark Walker (R-SC). “We’ve done our work.”

That’s quite a quote: “we’re not negotiating.” In this respect, Democrats feel like they’re stuck in the same position they held in the Obama years: They’re ready and willing to compromise, even on issues like the wall that they really oppose, but Republicans are too deeply in thrall to their own right wing to cut a deal.

The logic (and consequences) of partisan retaliation

In 2016, political scientists Matt Grossmann and David Hopkins published Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats. The book argued that America’s two major political parties weren’t mirror images of each other; they were different kinds of coalitions that were composed in different ways, saw politics through different lenses, and employed different tactics.

At the base of Grossmann and Hopkins’s book was reams of data showing that the Democratic Party was a more fractious coalition of interest groups that were primarily interested in policy concessions — as such, they took a more transactional approach to politics, prizing strategies that would get them a deal and accomplish their policy goals.

Republicans, by contrast, were a more homogenous coalition that cared deeply about conservative principles — as such, they took a more ideological approach to politics, prizing strategies that demonstrated philosophical purity and the performative pursuit of their side’s ideals.

This cleavage seemed to explain the different tactics prized and employed by the two parties. For instance, polling showed Democrats consistently prefer politicians who compromise and Republicans consistently prefer politicians who stick to their principles. This seemed to explain why Republicans had shut down the government and threatened the debt ceiling in the Clinton and Obama eras but Democrats did nothing of the kind in the Bush era.

Today, Grossmann thinks the Democratic Party is changing. “There is a direct attempt to copy Republicans tactically, particularly in terms of activism and online media trying to hold leaders’ feet to the fire,” he says. But those changes are in service of the Democratic Party’s traditional constituencies and ends: There is a policy outcome of paramount importance to one of the party’s key interest groups, and they’re willing to compromise to get it done.

This does make Democrats different from Republicans. Asking Trump to accept funding for the wall, which he supports, alongside a permanent solution for DREAMers, which he also says he supports, is just not the same as asking Obama to defund Obamacare, or to gut federal spending in order to raise the debt ceiling. The tactics are similar, but the goals are different.

A simple way of putting both the similarities and the differences may be this: In the Obama years, a highly mobilized and increasingly powerful conservative base demanded hardline congressional tactics instead of permitting policy compromise. In the Trump years, a highly mobilized and increasingly powerful liberal base is demanding hardline congressional tactics in order to force policy compromise.

But even if the motivations are different, the reality is both political parties are increasingly embracing hardline congressional tactics, and that creates a logic of escalation that’s difficult to disrupt. As the parties fight harder and dirtier, the other side’s partisans demand that their elected officials respond in kind. Earlier, I quoted from Mike Tomasky’s New York Times column worrying that Democrats were becoming a “mirror image” of Republicans, but even in that piece, you see the logic of escalation’s power:

For now, liberals should cheer this unreservedly. ... The Republicans have been playing this way for years. If Democrats won’t, they’ll just lose. You can’t bring a squirt gun to the O.K. Corral.

I hear this even from Democratic members of Congress. The tactics Republicans employed in the Obama era have left them feeling like they’d be suckers to swear off similar approaches in the Trump era. As a theory, it makes an overwhelming amount of both emotional and logical sense. But as a governing dynamic for an advanced democracy, it makes continued crises, and eventual disasters, all the more likely.

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