As president-elect, Donald Trump has quickly proven to be every bit the nightmare his opponents feared. He’s continuing to tweet absurd lies (such as his claim that he won the popular vote), and now he’s tapping extremists for high positions, like white nationalist Stephen Bannon, conspiracy-minded General Michael Flynn, and civil-rights antagonist Senator Jeff Sessions. What makes the lurch to the hard right all the more galling for Democrats is the fact that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2.5 million votes (roughly 2 percent). That means Trump—with Republicans controlling both houses of Congress—will be able to inflict a radical agenda on the country with minority support. (Just how little support is reflected in Trump’s favorability rating of 42 percent, a whopping 16 points lower than the norm for president-elects at this point.)
The time is ripe for a concerted, coherent opposition to Trump even before he’s inaugurated. Unfortunately, the Democratic Party is facing this national crisis leaderless. The hunger among liberals for an oppositional stance is strong—you can see it, among other things, in the grassroots protest of Trump’s elevation of Bannon to the position of chief counsel (which has resulted in a flood of phone calls and letters to members of Congress), as well as the success of Green Party Leader Jill Stein in raising money for her efforts to recount the vote in three key states.
Significantly, both of those efforts are taking place outside the Democratic Party (although 169 congressional Democrats have signed a letter denouncing the Bannon appointment). They are flourishing in part because of the leadership gap on the Democratic side: President Obama is constrained by norms governing how a president treats his successor; Hillary Clinton by norms that dictate a defeated candidate keep a low profile; and the next head of the Democratic National Committee won’t be picked till the end of February.
Democrats should take a cue from parliamentary democracies. In those systems, the party that comes in second still has an official leader. That party head becomes the recognized leader of the opposition, and as such has the job of holding the government accountable.
In the American system, there is no official position as leader of the opposition. There’s a legislative role for the minority leaders in the House of Representatives (Nancy Pelosi) and the Senate (Chuck Schumer), of course. And Schumer, in particular, will have some real leverage—thanks to the Democrats’ ability to filibuster some nominees and legislation in the Senate, the narrowness of the Republican majority in that chamber, and the pronounced willingness of Republican senators like Lindsay Graham and Rand Paul to buck Trump. He’ll play a big role in winning a few battles against Trump’s nominations and policies, and so will Pelosi, to a lesser extent.
But however crucial they are as legislative tacticians, the role of opposition leader requires someone more aggressive, someone who can rally grassroots liberals and congressional Democrats, and someone who can craft and convey a message that can be widely supported and echoed.
Ideally such a position would be created now, as there is much to oppose during Trump’s presidential transition. Waiting until he’s already inaugurated to organize the opposition will just further demoralize grassroots Democrats—and make it impossible to mount an effective counter to his ambitious plans for the first 100 days. To create a new party leadership role now would require a real effort of will: Schumer and Pelosi would have to hold an emergency meeting of elected officials and top party leaders, most likely, to get the ball rolling. But given the political stakes, an emergency response is the only choice. And the best choice for the party’s opposition leader is equally clear.
Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have taken the lead in denouncing Trump since his stunning election. Sanders has been particularly valuable in calling Trump’s bluff on economic populism; on Thursday he criticized Trump’s vaunted saving of jobs at the Carrier plant in Indiana as a fraud, tweeting: “Carrier gets millions in tax breaks. Indiana loses thousands of jobs. United Technologies took Trump hostage and won.” In a similar vein, Warren denounced the pick of Steve Mnuchin as Treasury secretary by calling him “the Forrest Gump of the financial crisis,” who “managed to participate in all the worst practices on Wall Street.” She went on: “He spent two decades at Goldman Sachs, helping the bank peddle the same kind of mortgage products that blew up the economy and sucked down billions in taxpayer-bailout money before he moved on to run a bank that was infamous for aggressively foreclosing on families.”
Warren and Sanders are both terrific counter-punchers. But in the current context, they feel like voices in the wilderness. Sanders in particular still has an uneasy relationship with the Democratic Party. He’s returned to Congress as an independent, not a Democrat. And much of his post-election commentary has been about how the party needs to fundamentally change to speak to working-class voters. Sanders is making a valuable contribution as a critic of the party, but that precludes him from being the voice of the party.
Warren, on the other hand, is perfectly suited to be leader of the opposition to Trump. I’m not the first to suggest this. On the most recent episode of their podcast Keepin’ It 1600, former Obama advisors Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer bantered and worried over the Democrats’ leadership vacuum. Favreau lamented that “because Hillary is running around in the woods all day” and “Barack Obama has to play nice with Donald Trump,” Democrats were left with just Schumer and Pelosi. “Are those the only voices out there?” he asked. “I don’t know what to do here.” Pfeiffer responded: “This is a real challenge. I think Elizabeth Warren is going to have to be a very important voice. What you need is someone who has either the national stature or the leadership position to get press coverage, and you need somebody who can deliver a compelling message and is a compelling messenger.”
It’s not just Warren’s considerable skills as a public messenger that make her the logical choice to take a newly created role leading the opposition Democrats at this critical moment. She has populist and anti-Wall Street credentials, making her well-positioned to call Trump’s bluff as he enacts a plutocratic agenda and betrays the promises he made to his working-class base. Politically, she’s situated in the middle between Sanders and Schumer. She’s a party member in good standing (unlike Sanders), but not a centrist with Wall Street ties (like Schumer). She has credentials both as a Democrat (which Sanders lacks) and as a fighter (which Schumer lacks).
With her sharp, relentless, and often funny criticism of Trump, Warren has already stepped up to the plate as the party’s most stalwart voice. If the Democrats could invent a way to formalize her role, it would make her all the more effective.
One path might be for Schumer and Pelosi to get the congressional Democrats and party leaders together for a private meeting where they agree that Trump needs to be opposed as relentlessly and ruthlessly as Mitch McConnell’s congressional Republicans opposed Obama. In this new scenario, Schumer and Pelosi would play the role of party whips, strategizing the opposition to policy proposals and obnoxious nominations while keeping the votes in line to make sure Democrats don’t defect or turn into Trump collaborators—Vichy Democrats. But these are essentially behind-the-scenes tasks. Warren, by contrast, could be given a title (Chief Presidential Critic? Democratic Opposition Leader? Shadow President?) and be tasked with going out to the media and laying out the party’s talking points.
As Chief Presidential Critic (or whatever title the Democrats conjure), Warren could take on the crucial task of message-discipline. As Rich Yeselson, a writer for Dissent and other left-of-center journals, notes, “The biggest problem for the Democrats versus the Republicans in getting out a message is that there is not nearly the level of coordination. This may become different in the age of Trump, but the GOP has been agit-prop excellent in having all of its top players ‘on message’ and saying the same thing—obviously, eliminating Obamacare is a classic example and there are many others.”
Warren would be the go-to person when the media wants the Democratic Party’s response to Trump’s latest words and actions; other politicians and surrogates would take their cues from her. She would take the lead on setting and articulating the party’s talking points, while Pelosi and Schumer work to whip Democrats in Congress. Warren would give the party the tough-but-appealing face, and voice, it so badly needs. And grassroots Democrats could, and would, amplify her voice—they’d have someone to rally around, to point to as their key anti-Trump champion.
Democrats are, by nature, rule-followers—and there’s no tradition of having an official role for an opposition leader in one of the major parties. Crafting a position like this for Warren would be a radical move. But radical times call for radical measures. Democrats have to oppose Trump as hard and effectively as they can—and they can’t wait till January 20 to start mounting that opposition. The only way the party can hope to put the brakes on the worst of the Trump agenda is to come together as a cohesive party. And that means rallying around a leader who can help it speak with one voice.