Don’t Believe the Progressive Hype

February 16, 2017

The first few weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency have buoyed Democrats. The ouster of National Security Adviser Mike Flynn and the furor surrounding Mr. Trump’s immigration order have energized the party’s base. Democrats believe there’s a tea-party-style movement forming that will help them sweep the 2018 midterms. Perhaps, but there are critical differences between now and 2009.

The tea party arose spontaneously as an organic display of deep disagreements with President Obama’s stimulus bill. ObamaCare strengthened the opposition, helping the new movement attract Americans who had never before been politically active.

This year’s progressive response appears to be largely scripted. Left-wing groups such as Organizing for Action, and Democracy for America are drawing on existing cadres of activists.

Although the protests grab headlines and give congressional Republicans the jitters, it’s questionable whether the agitation will bring new people into the Democratic Party. Pushing the party further to the left won’t necessarily convince swing voters from Trump states.

Democrats are further hobbled because their bench of state and local officeholders was decimated during the Obama years and now comes mostly from big cities and blue coastal states.

Also no help is the Democratic Party’s aged leadership: In the House, the top three Democrats are all older than 75. On the Republican side the oldest of the top three is Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who is 52.

The Democrats’ challenges were evident following their House retreat last week. Left-wingers griped that a centrist Democratic operative was allowed to speak. There seemed to be no clear direction beyond opposing the president. As the minority party, Democrats cannot pass any agenda. But they need to stand for something that at least appears to approximate change from the Obama years.

The party’s problems are also evident in the strategy demanded by its hard left to resist fiercely almost all of Mr. Trump’s cabinet nominations, rather than objecting to a few based on important principles. This has left Democrats looking like petty obstructionists and sour losers.

Democrats will eventually find their footing, but Republicans should try to avoid giving them openings. That’s why the bungled immigration order, Mr. Flynn’s forced retirement, and greater-than-normal White House disarray are so problematic. These, combined with needless Twitter controversies, have cost Team Trump control of the narrative. The new administration looks as if it’s off course, wasting time on unimportant issues.

Mr. Trump won the election because Americans wanted change: a stronger economy, more jobs, bigger paychecks. Fully 52% of voters told exit pollsters that the economy was the most important issue, followed by terrorism at 18%. Foreign policy and immigration were tied at 13%. That disparity persists. A Feb. 13 poll from Fox News found 52% of voters say it’s extremely or very important for Mr. Trump to work on cutting taxes. Forty-nine percent say the same about repealing ObamaCare. Only 26% see building a border wall as extremely or very important.

The president has made a good start on economic issues, signing an executive order to diminish ObamaCare’s ill effects. Congressional Republicans are readying comprehensive tax reform that includes a pro-growth rate cut, while wrangling over an ObamaCare replacement bill. The president is reducing unnecessary federal regulations while the GOP Congress votes to override the Obama administration’s last-minute rules. The markets have reacted well to all this.

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Yet these positive moves have been overshadowed by unforced errors, avoidable mistakes and misplaced priorities. Rather than seeing the president as engaged on the big issues, many Americans believe Mr. Trump is more concerned with trivial ones: the size of his inauguration crowd, Meryl Streep’s ungracious Golden Globes speech, and his daughter Ivanka’s fashion line.

The president and his staff would serve the country better by focusing on the economy, jobs and paychecks. Sideshows can be ignored, and even justifiable complaints like leaks of embarrassing classified information can be played down and taken care of quietly.

No president in living memory has gotten off to a rockier start than Mr. Trump. Failing to define the narrative is giving Democrats a chance to get up off the mat. Time is growing short for Team Trump to regain control—but it will require disciplined leadership from the Oval Office.

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