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'Vote no on everything!': How U.S. Democrats are undergoing a Tea Party moment

The Democrats undergo their Tea Party moment

WASHINGTON — Angry crowds vow to block the president at every turn. Partisans threaten the elected politicians of their own party: fight always, or face a primary. Tension over impending health reform sloshes extra fuel onto this partisan brushfire.

Sound familiar?

Just like 2009, a spirit of militancy is rippling through the ranks of America's opposition. Unlike 2009, this time it's Democrats having a Tea Party moment â€” their grassroots determined to resist everywhere, settle nowhere and purge internal pockets of compromise.

Snapshots of this are on display this week during a congressional recess. Furious constituents are cramming town-hall meetings to fill lawmakers' ears as Republicans prepare to repeal the health law by former president Barack Obama.

Ask Democratic lawmakers about those crowds. One senator was recently forced to join a throng outside a town-hall meeting, hold up a megaphone and read a list of Donald Trump cabinet picks. For each name, the crowd insisted on hearing Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse say, "No," and promise to fight every nomination.

But he was engulfed in groans and boos for daring to suggest, after reading one name, Commerce pick Wilbur Ross, that he might want to speak with him first about issues relevant to his home state of Rhode Island. The crowd chanted, "Obstruct! Obstruct!" A woman on a megaphone shouted: "Vote no on everything!" Another woman said: "You can't normalize these appointments."

That scene is part of the whiplash-inducing reversal in roles since the election. For example:

—Protests. Both parties dismissed demonstrations as the work of billionaire bogeymen. Democrats pointed to the Koch brothers' funding of some protest groups. Now it's the Republicans' turn — their target is George Soros.

Trump brushed off the protests in a tweet Tuesday: "The so-called angry crowds ... are actually, in numerous cases, planned out by liberal activists. Sad!"

—Nominations. Republicans stalled picks for cabinet and the Supreme Court. Now it's Democrats blocking almost half the cabinet, and gearing up for a Supreme Court fight. It's Republicans who want the right to govern.

The irony prompted a cheeky stunt from the top Democrat in Congress. Chuck Schumer sent the top Republican back a letter he'd written in 2009, demanding a slower process for cabinet confirmations. He crossed off Mitch McConnell's name and signed his own.

—Filibusters. A decades-old rule requires 60 per cent of votes in the Senate to pass most laws, appoint judges and confirm cabinet picks. One party loves the Senate filibuster rule, the other hates it. They vary, depending on who holds power. 

Amid Republican stalling, Democrats eliminated parts of the filibuster four years ago. McConnell called it a dark day in the Senate's history. Now the shoe's on the other foot. Democrats are doing the blocking, and President Trump wants McConnell to extend the so-called nuclear option to Supreme Court picks: "I would. We have obstructionists."

But woe be unto Democrats who don't obstruct. A familiar threat echoed through left-wing social media when news broke that three Democrats voted for Rex Tillerson's confirmation as secretary of state.

"It's primary o'clock!" tweeted Karthik Ganapathy, a former campaign spokesman for Bernie Sanders.

That episode tells a longer-term story about U.S. politics — about the increasing absence of common ground between red- and blue-state America, and how that growing divide is swallowing up centrist politicians.

Just look at which Democrats voted to confirm Tillerson, the former oil executive. All three come from swing or Republican-leaning states. Two are up for election in 2018, in North Dakota and West Virginia; both states produce fossil-fuel energy; both members supported the Keystone XL pipeline; both visited Trump Tower during the transition, and both were rumoured as candidates to be Trump's energy secretary.

Both have constituents who love the president: Trump won West Virginia and North Dakota by 78 percentage points, combined.

That creates an incentive to compromise that's increasingly rare in modern U.S. politics. Most self-identified Democrats — 56 per cent — told Morning Consult pollsters last month they were ready to block potentially every single appointment, in effect leaving the president without a cabinet. 

The force of this fury has pushed Democrats toward a strategic reboot.

Initially, the party leadership mused about occasionally working with Trump. But Schumer hardened his tone, after protests in his hometown New York. A protest event calling itself "What The F*ck Chuck?" declared on its Facebook page: "No appeasement, no dealmaking, no collaboration."

Tea Party similarities aren't necessarily accidental.

A group of Democratic congressional staffers published a how-to guide for protesters — based on their own frustrating experiences with the Tea Party. They offer tips for monopolizing the opposition's attention, wasting its time and resources, and forcing it to deal with nuisances instead of advancing its agenda.

"We know this because we've seen it before," said the authors of the guide titled, "Indivisible." "We saw these activists take on a popular president (Obama). ... Their ideas were wrong, cruel, and tinged with racism — and they won...

"Trump is not popular. He does not have a mandate. He does not have large congressional majorities. If a small minority in the Tea Party could stop President Obama, then we the majority can stop a petty tyrant named Trump."

One political scientist suggests this partisan see-sawing might sicken the Founding Fathers. He points to James Madison's Federalist Paper No. 10, which begins with a warning for the young nation: resist the tendency toward political faction.

"They would probably be horrified at how partisan the institutions have become," said Rafael Jacob, an instructor at Philadelphia's Temple University and fellow at Universite du Quebec's Raoul-Dandurand chair.

"Congress was not originally designed to have members of two opposite parties, let alone two parties increasingly behaving as though they were operating in a parliamentary system (with) two highly homogeneous blocks."

A colleague of his isn't especially worried about gridlock. Lauren Bell of Randolph-Macon College worries more about the gerrymandering of congressional districts, the public's loss of faith that a vote in a national election makes a difference and an erosion of checks on partisan instincts.

"I'm less concerned ... about the state of our institutions and more concerned about the state of our politics."

Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press