What the Shutdown Reveals About the Democratic Party

One year into Trump’s presidency, one political party has been transformed. It’s not the GOP.

By MATT GROSSMANN | Politico | January 21, 2018


Last year, newly inaugurated President Donald Trump was expected to be a transformative figure who could remake the Republican Party, altering its electorate, image and policy priorities. The “populist” Trump “dashed Republican hopes for a more traditional agenda … and all but dared his own party to resist his Republican reformation,” the New York Times reported.

The government shutdown greeting his administration’s first anniversary shows he has remade a major political party, pushing it toward a new strategy and identity—but it was the Democrats.

Republicans are the same party of conservative brinkmanship that they were last year, but Democrats are pursuing a harder-line strategy of unified opposition focused on social issues. Whereas they greeted a new George W. Bush administration with cooperation on education reform and acquiescence on tax cuts, Democrats have loudly opposed all Trump administration initiatives, facing pressure from an energized base.

The Republican reformation has not materialized. Promising to end “American carnage” as he took office, Trump sought to refocus Republicans around immigration, trade and crime. Strategists said he could move left on economic policy, targeting the party’s white working-class constituency with tangible benefits. But his first year focused instead on a major corporate tax cut and considerable deregulation, along with more failed votes to repeal Obamacare. Trump moved policy rightward on immigration, but he also did so on education, health, the environment and nearly everything else.

The government shut down in the wee hours of Saturday morning after the House Freedom Caucus held up a must-pass bill to force concessions while Mitch McConnell put off major policy in favor of another short-term funding extension. It was a scene that looked like many weeks under President Barack Obama. For congressional Republicans, not much has changed.

But look at the Democrats. Inside Congress, they demanded action to restore protections for immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally as children in order to vote on a government funding bill. Their liberal base copied the minority intransigence of the Republicans, using online media and activism to hold legislators to a hard line. In the grass roots, they organized massive women’s marches across dozens of American cities, marking a full year of relentless progressive activism.

Losing a presidential election often stimulates activism, and a new president usually provokes a backlash, but the size of the Democratic resurgence is unprecedented. Democrats have more than tripled the usual number of serious candidates challenging members of Congress. They have competed everywhere in special elections, winning in unlikely places. This—after reaching a low in federal and state offices the party had not seen since the 1920s.

What’s particularly astonishing is how Democrats have accomplished this outside the formal structures of the Democratic Party, which has often seemed irrelevant. Explicitly copying the Tea Party, they founded grass-roots organizations in nearly every district to regularly call legislators. They held large protests on women’s issues, science, climate and racism. More Democrats even starte