How can Democrats attack President Donald Trump this midterm season without getting swept up in and drowned out by his personal controversies?
It’s a question that has confounded party leaders, individual candidates, outside groups and activists across the liberal spectrum. Now, as the elections near, Democrats on Capitol Hill think they are getting closer to cracking the code.
On Monday, they introduced a new suite of anti-corruption proposals and “democracy reforms” designed to hammer at a variety of allegations of unethical behavior and investigations swirling around the Trump administration and team, from a personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, accused of trading on his access to the President, to cabinet officials like EPA administrator Scott Pruitt and OMB director Mick Mulvaney, the acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, who Democrats accuse of actively seeking to undermine their agencies’ own missions.
“Instead of delivering on his promise to drain the swamp, President Trump has become the swamp,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said.
Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s top Democrat, echoed Pelosi. “The swamp,” he said, “has never been more foul or more fetid than under this President.”
The initial rollout of “A Better Deal,” in 2017, was met with polite applause from progressive Democrats, who were pleased to see the party highlight an economic justice agenda. But the message – overshadowed on the day by Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner’s meeting with Senate Intelligence Committee staffers – has at turns been undermined, Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes told CNN, by a deep and growing public cynicism in American political institutions.
“A lot of this is structural and a lot of it has been around for a long time,” Sarbanes said earlier Monday. “Everybody knows it. The question is what are we going to do about it?”
Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, along with Sarbanes, who chairs the party’s “Democracy Reform Task Force” on Capitol Hill and has introduced a comprehensive reform bill called the “Government by the People Act,” are hoping this new effort will inspire more faith from voters who might doubt that the party’s increasingly ambitious policy goals – like a deepening commitment to universal health care – will ever get a fair hearing in the swamp.
“We think this (new rollout) caffeinates, makes stronger and reinforces, all the other messages that are part of ‘The Better Deal,’” Sarbanes said. “‘A Better Deal for our Democracy’ is telling people that we want to find a way to give them their institutions back and make their voice count again.”
That means encouraging policy points like automatic voter registration, an end to partisan gerrymandering, countering state laws Democrats believe are purpose-built to disenfranchise those already or trying now to get on the rolls, shining new light – and toughening enforcement – on dark money groups and, ultimately, reversing the effects of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision with new legislation.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington state Democrat, argued that without campaign finance reform, almost all progressive legislation, no matter how popular, was ultimately be doomed.
“We know that big donors, that the NRA, the Koch Brothers, that all of these special interest groups actually own Republican members of Congress,” she said. “They give them money, they throw resources into tight races and, in return, they receive a not-so-secret promise from Republicans to slow or to shred any meaningful legislation to address our nation’s biggest problems.”
The new raft of proposals also address longstanding concerns about the proximity of moneyed interests to elected officials. Current law is, if not easily broken, then often defied in spirit and gamed on technicalities. , Democrats believe the reports surrounding Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s post-election consulting deals offer an opportunity to hit the President while also making an affirmative, progressive political statement.
“It’s not just the access that lobbyists and consultants and, quote, ‘strategic advisers,’ have on behalf of their well-heeled clients,” Sarbanes said, “it’s the influence that, in the case of Scott Pruitt, who’s carrying water – polluted water, I’d say – on behalf of the oil and gas industry, has (on regulatory decisions).”
Good government and anti-corruption messaging has served Democrats well in the past. It was at the center of their return to congressional power in 2006, when another Republican president, George W. Bush, was struggling in the polls and the GOP Congress was beset by scandal. In exit polling that November, 42% of voters said corruption and ethics were an extremely important influence on their vote.
“Everybody knows that there is an influence economy in this city – and there’s no bigger revolving door than right down the street at Trump International Hotel,” Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos said, gesturing in the direction of the building where Vice President Mike Pence will speak later Monday at an event for the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.
Speaking at the Center for American Progress’s Ideas conference in Washington last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat up for reelection this year and a top presidential primary prospect for 2020, offered a similar argument to what her colleagues are unveiling now.
“This crisis did not begin when Donald Trump took office,” Warren said. “Men like Trump only wind up in power when democracies are already decaying.”