Frenetic beginning of Trump presidency has Democrats, Republicans fumbling to respond

President Donald Trump arrives back at the White House after addressing congressional Republicans at a retreat Jan. 26 in Philadelphia. [New York Times]
President Donald Trump arrives back at the White House after addressing congressional Republicans at a retreat Jan. 26 in Philadelphia. [New York Times]
Published Feb. 3, 2017

Jeb Bush nailed one thing during his clunky presidential campaign.

"He's a chaos candidate, and he'd be a chaos president," Florida's ex-governor said of Donald Trump during a December 2015 debate.

No one figured out how to effectively respond to the insult-hurling billionaire as he upended the 2016 race. And it's unclear two weeks into an ultra-chaotic presidency whether anyone has a handle on how to react to so much coming so fast.

"We are through the looking glass here. We are looking at things that no other House and Senate has dealt with, the media has never dealt with, the people have never dealt with," said Simon Rosenberg, founder of the New Democrat Network, a center-left think tank. "My fear is that so many steps are being taken so quickly that will fundamentally change the world, and they're not being debated."

A new Supreme Court justice nominee. Alternative facts. A temporary travel ban for seven overwhelmingly majority Muslim countries. Deliberately excluding Jews from a statement about the Holocaust. Putting his nationalist political strategist, Steve Bannon, on the National Security Council, while removing the national intelligence director and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Antagonizing long-standing allies from Australia to Mexico. Withholding his tax returns. Tweeting insults at "fake tears Chuck Schumer," at Lindsey Graham and John McCain, at the New York Times and Washington Post, at Meryl Streep and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

For Democrats, the challenge is responding forcefully and effectively on any given front.

For Republicans, the challenge is greater. At what point, do they stand up for core conservative and/or American principles against a Republican president with a fervent base of support doing exactly what he campaigned on: roiling long-standing norms and institutions.

"It's not surprising he's doing what he said he would do. It's surprising Republicans are capitulating and following along," former U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Belleair Bluffs, said on MSNBC earlier this week, attacking Trump's travel ban as an illegal assault on religion, calling the president authoritarian and suggesting Trump could be impeached.

"The president of the United States could destroy a member of Congress with a single tweet. And that's why no member of Congress wants to speak out too much," Jolly said.

Democratic members will have no choice. Their base demands it.

America has entered an era as turbulent as the 1960s, and milquetoast Democratic responses to President Trump's divisive actions are likely to go over as well with constituents as milquetoast Democratic positions on the Vietnam War did in 1970.

"It's amazing. There is unprecedented citizen engagement right now," said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, echoing other Democratic leaders and activists across the country. "Phone calls to the office are in the thousands. Social media is on fire. People are protesting. They're in a way leading the charge. These engaged citizens understand what's at stake."

Pinellas Democratic chairwoman Susan McGrath set out 100 chairs for the group's latest monthly meeting. Two hundred people showed up.

"We are seeing unprecedented reaction from Democrats and independents and even some Republicans," she said. "Every day is a circus with the Trump administration. . . . For Democrats the important thing is not to lose our attention to the shiny object. Donald Trump wants to talk about crowd size. We don't. We want to talk about the Muslim ban, or defunded women's reproductive services, policies that matter to people."

That 20,000 people showed up for the recent women's march in St. Petersburg shows how fired up and anxious constituents are about Trump, said U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg. One challenge for Democrats like him is not leaping to conclusions about the ramifications of Trump's actions.

"It's going so fast and so furious that sometimes you can get a little ahead of your skis," said Crist, who took several days to respond to Trump's temporary ban on travelers and refugees from heavily Muslim countries, including Syria and Iraq.

Democrats have so many potential battles to fight with the Trump administration, they risk diminishing their arguments by appearing like the knee-jerk Republican obstructionists they fumed about for the past eight years.

"The challenge for Democrats is less about picking the battles and more about picking the message. Democrats would be abdicating their moral authority if they let some of the things go, but they need to tell a consistent story about Trump," former Obama senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said. "Build an overall message frame and then use it to define each of these battles."

Rosenberg of the New Democrat Network would like to see Democrats draw four overall lines in the sand: Trump needs to halt the stream of executive orders causing so much chaos in implementation; allow new initiatives to undergo debate in Congress; disclose his financial holdings or immediately divest them to protect America's national security; honor decorum and cease with the regular, nasty attacks on those who disagree with him. He said Democrats must first and foremost be patriots standing up to fight for America's democratic norms.

"If you're not going to slow down and play by the rules, we're going to shut the government down," he said.

The message is that Democrats are fighting anti-democratic actions, not fighting a Republican president.

There are plenty of Republicans uneasy, if not quietly horrified, by the start of the Trump administration, particularly inept implementation of policies such as the travel ban and lack of coordination and communication.

"The frustrating part is why would you hire such a talented Cabinet and not use them in making sure that implementing that plan is as efficient and seamless as possible," Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a likely candidate for governor, said of the executive order on immigration restrictions.

Eight days in, Gallup's tracking poll found a majority of Americans disapproved of Trump's performance, the fastest any president has reached 51 percent disapproval since Gallup began tracking it in 1945. It took Barack Obama 936 days and George W. Bush 1,205.

Trump supporters knew he had a temperament problem, but they wanted somebody to blow up the status quo and assumed he would surround himself with savvy advisers who would keep his impetuous instincts in check. So far the latter hasn't happened.

Trump skeptics and opponents knew he would cause chaos. The shock was that Trump won the election. And now the challenge is learning to take on a disruptor-in-chief they never dreamed would make it so far.

Contact Adam C. Smith at Follow @adamsmithtimes.