Democrats are struggling to challenge President Donald Trump, and with control over nothing in Washington, they’re relying for now on the power of saying “no.”
The minority party won major concessions from Republicans in a spending bill, including an unthinkable win preserving federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Democrats’ boasts that the bill represented a defeat for Trump so infuriated him that the White House threatened a government shutdown in the fall.
“This is a party that was stunned by what happened in the election but then started to get back into action,” said Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who ran for chair of the Democratic National Committee earlier this year. “What we’ve seen is fundamentally a move from anger to urgency to outcomes.”
Yet it is also a party very much in turmoil, with competing centers of power that disagree about why Democrats suffered the most stunning presidential election loss in a generation and what they must do to recover. Many of the party’s leaders are the same people who led them to defeats in 2016 and 2014. The Democratic agenda is largely the same that voters in the Midwest rejected in November, with no adjustments so far to appeal to the white working class that propelled Trump to victory.
Here’s a look at how Democrats are attempting to regroup.
Organic protests against the president, such as the January 21 Women’s March, have given rise to new opposition groups. The most important is Indivisible, which began as a Google Doc created by two former Democratic congressional staffers to advise people upset with Trump’s election on how to get lawmakers’ attention. The document has been downloaded more than a million times and the former Hill staffers — Ezra Levin and Leah Greenberg — joined with a handful of others to form a nonprofit to help activists influence lawmakers.
Democratic National Convention
Former Obama Labor Secretary Tom Perez was elected to a four-year term as chairman in late February. His election was a contest between factions loyal to either Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton or Clinton’s primary opponent, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Perez sought to heal the rift by naming Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, the first member of Congress to endorse Sanders for president, his deputy chairman, and by hitting the road with Sanders on a “unity tour.”
Priorities USA Action
Created to re-elect Barack Obama and reincarnated to elect Hillary Clinton, Priorities spent $200 million in the 2016 cycle and made a six-figure ad buy against Republicans’ health-care legislation in nine key states this spring. Chairman Guy Cecil brought on former Clinton campaign press secretary Brian Fallon as a senior adviser. The group has also developed ties with Let America Vote, a so-called “527” led by Jason Kander, the former Missouri secretary of state who lost his Senate bid last year but is still seen as a rising Democratic star.
Center for American Progress
CAP was regarded as Hillary Clinton’s government-in-waiting during the presidential campaign. Its communications arm, the CAP Action Fund, brought on former Harry Reid aide Adam Jentleson to lead a so-called “war room” against the president. On May 16, CAP hosted its first-ever Ideas Conference, described as a “progressive CPAC,” the annual Conservative Political Action Convention. Senators Elizabeth Warren, Chris Murphy, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, as well as Montana Governor Steve Bullock and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, were among those set to speak.
The former president’s outside advocacy group, Organizing for Action, is reconstituting as a vehicle for his post-presidency political work. There’s not a lot of warm feelings for OFA among liberals who aren’t part of it. At recent DNC meetings before Perez’s election, OFA was often mentioned scornfully, regarded as sucking resources—especially Obama’s time and energy—away from the party structure. Obama has also put his imprimatur on the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, led by former Attorney General Eric Holder, which aims to influence the re-drawing of congressional districts in 2021.
Brock built his career first as the Clintons’ conservative antagonist in the 1990s and since then as their chief defender. He runs a network of opposition groups, including American Bridge, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Media Matters and Shareblue. CREW filed a lawsuit claiming Trump violated the Constitution’s ban on “emoluments” (payments) from foreign governments and also filed a complaint against Kellyanne Conway after she encouraged Americans to buy items from the Ivanka Trump brand during a television interview.
The former vice president is building a post-White House foundation that’s focused on finding a cure for cancer, but he’s also working his way back into politics. He campaigned in February for a Delaware state senate candidate, returned to Capitol Hill in March for a rally marking the seventh anniversary of the signing of the Affordable Care Act and spoke last month at a big dinner for New Hampshire Democrats. He and Jill Biden have also signed a deal to write a total of three books over the next few years. Those moves have stoked speculation he might still kindle a flame for the presidency.
Clinton re-emerged this spring after spending months out of the public eye. She has returned to the speaking circuit, where, amid controversy, she’s answered questions about her loss and hasn’t been shy to criticize Trump. On May 15, she launched Onward Together, a group that will focus on sending money to support other Democratic organizations, including Indivisibles, Run for Something and Swing Left, which is focused on helping Democrats win House races in swing districts in 2018. She’s also working on a book of essays, due out later this year, that will include her reflections on the 2016 race.
Aides to the Vermont senator in August launched Our Revolution, a 501(c)(4) aimed at supporting liberal candidates and keeping alive the movement that formed around his campaign. It’s headed by his campaign manager and longtime adviser Jeff Weaver and has shown it will exacerbate divisions in the party. Along with Democracy for America and the National Nurses Unions – two key pro-Sanders groups in 2016 – Our Revolution campaigned aggressively for Perez’s rival, Ellison, for DNC chair.
The Massachusetts senator is a major fundraising draw not only for herself but for other Democratic candidates and groups. She was the keynote speaker at the annual Emily’s List’s gala in May, to be followed by her CAP conference speech. But she’s got to worry about her own re-election in 2018; a January poll by radio station WBUR in Boston found that 46 percent of the state’s voters think someone else should occupy her Senate seat.