ATLANTA — The resistance movement that flourished with Donald Trump’s ascendance to the White House isn’t necessarily itching to see his presidency undone by the investigation into Russia’s election meddling or even impeachment.
They’d rather beat Trump and other Republicans at the ballot box, winning an argument over the nation’s direction, not the president’s fitness for office.
To be clear, liberal activists gathered for the annual Netroots Nation confab this weekend in Georgia say they’re following counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into possible collaboration between Russian agents and Trump’s inner circle. But obsessing over subpoenas, much less clamoring for impeachment, they say, distracts from larger policy debates and congressional midterm elections whose outcomes will last beyond Trump.
“This administration is a dumpster fire, but that means we need members of the movement focused on everything, on action,” says Ericka Perrson, an organizer for the Working Families Party. “Russia, that whole investigation can serve sometimes as a magic trick. There’s this hand moving up in the air so you don’t see what’s going on over here.”
The immediate task, says Leah Greenberg, co-founder of Indivisible, sometimes cast as the tea party of the left, is to keep pressure on congressional Democrats when the Republican majority returns in September to pursue an overhaul of the tax code, figure out how to fund the government and continues to grapple with health care.
“We’re focusing on the places where constituents have leverage right now,” Greenberg says.
The long-term aim, say Greenberg and others, is simple even if not easy: Help Democrats — liberal Democrats, specifically — win more elections from Congress and governors’ offices down to local school boards so the left can do more than play defense.
The strategy suggests there may not be as many divisions among Democratic Party leaders, the activist left and conventional advocacy groups as it sometimes appears, and it certainly could give some relief to party officials on Capitol Hill, where House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., want no part of an impeachment resolution introduced by a handful of liberal members and accusing Trump of obstruction of justice.
Democrats argue that impeachment talk energizes the Republican base and such a drastic step would elevate Vice President Mike Pence.
“It’s important that Democrats don’t overplay their hand” so the party “takes advantage of whatever opportunities we will have in 2018,” says Jaime Harrison, a top deputy to Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, as he mingled with Netroots attendees.
Harrison adds another dose of reality. Anything in Washington, including investigations move slowly, meaning no resolution is likely before next year’s midterms. Periodic headlines like this week’s revelations that the FBI raided the home of Trump’s onetime campaign manager should keep the liberal base satisfied, Harrison argues.
Plenty of activists gathering in Atlanta are sporting anti-Trump buttons and T-shirts. Leaders are unabashed in crediting the president with fueling the energy on the left. “Is it OK to call it a silver lining?” muses Lala Wu, co-founder of Sister District Project, a group that steers activists from liberal strongholds to state and local campaigns in more conservative areas.
But “this last election was just one election,” Colorado state Rep. Faith Winter said in one forum, a nod to a Democratic slide that was obscured by President Barack Obama’s two national victories.
Democrats lost about 1,000 state legislative seats and their congressional majorities during Obama’s tenure. Beyond the GOP monopoly in Washington, Democrats now hold just 15 governor’s seats and have complete control of just six state governments, compared to 25 for Republicans. Collectively, it’s the weakest the party has been nationally since the start of the Great Depression nine decades ago.
“What we’re really interested in is not just talk about how terrible everything is, but what can we actually do?” says Wu.
Democrats’ best electoral prospects next year is flipping 24 House seats to seize the majority from the GOP.
Certainly, critics here still bemoan the national party’s reliance on an older generation of leaders and the traditional flow of corporate campaign cash. “We are still coming from a common agreement that Democrats have to step up and do better,” says Working Families’ Perrson.
But the dynamics leave an activist like Bennett Silverstein, a 64-year-old attorney from New York, espousing essentially the same strategy as Andrew Gillum, the 38-year-old mayor of Tallahassee, Florida, who’s running for governor from the party’s liberal flank.
“Progressives have been getting our ass kicked for 30, 40 years now,” Silverstein says, arguing that Democrats should, as they oppose Republican policies, forcefully explain their own ideas for “what I like to call a Second New Deal.”
Republicans’ health care debacle, not Trump’s troubles, Silverstein said, “is the crack in the Republican Party” that gives Democrats an opening.
Says Gillum, “Look, we’re all running against Trump. We know what he represents.” But, he adds, “I talk about what the opportunities are for everybody in our state.”
Follow Bill Barrow on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/BillBarrowAP.