In the News
March 16, 2017
By Joshua Stewart
Rep. Scott Peters said he gets really angry about once a year. And Rep. Susan Davis is, by all accounts, quite nice.
A cool head and a friendly disposition might make someone a good co-worker or a decent neighbor, but some of these San Diego Democrats’ constituents want them to take a rougher, more aggressive approach on Capitol Hill with Donald Trump is in the White House.
“People are angry, they’re worried. And they want to know that I feel that,” Peters said.
Constituents have asked Davis to break out the rhetorical brass knuckles.
Peters has been questioned at town hall meetings about why he doesn’t appear visibly upset about Trump’s policies. At his most recent event on Monday, one man got emotional as he asked the congressman why he doesn’t directly and clearly call Republicans and Fox News liars when they make specious claims about the Affordable Care Act, a health insurance policy that has provided care for his daughter who has cancer.
“Will you stand up to the Republican Party to stop lying to the ACA,” the man asked Peters. “We’re not hearing you. Nobody’s hearing you. Are you telling the American people that there are no death panels, that they lied to us?”
But as they are being urged, even admonished, to be more confrontational, Davis and Peters say they are trying to stand in the Trump administration’s way as much as possible as members of the minority party, without burning bridges, and without adopting styles that are counter to their true personalities.
“My goal is to make things better for people, to help people,” Davis said. “To threaten different actions that would hurt people, like shutting down the government for example, why would I do that? Even as a ploy, it’s less consistent with the way I work, so it would come across as insincere.”
Others like Rep. Juan Vargas, D-San Diego, have been more confrontational. Vargas and some fellow Democrats attempted, unsuccessfully, to crash a meeting between officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other members of the House. In a separate incident, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Illinois, was handcuffed on Monday after he refused to leave meeting with ICE in Chicago.
Democrats have to be careful with their approach, according to Carl Luna, a political science professor and the director for the Institute for Civil Civic Engagement at the University of San Diego. The Trump administration has been extremely aggressive, he said, and Democrats need to push back just to hold their ground, but they can’t take things too far.
“There's nothing wrong with righteous anger in the face of grave injustice, should such injustice be seen,” Luna said. “But there's a line between passionate advocacy and poisonous rhetoric — a line the president may already well have crossed and which Democrats should avoid.”
While not prone to picking fights for jollies or throwing rhetorical bombs for the sake of landing a juicy headline, Davis and Peters said they’re working against the new administration even when it’s not blatantly obvious.
“I think there are opportunities we didn’t have… with an administration that shared our values,” Davis said. “Right now I think we have an administration that doesn’t share our values, so it is quite appropriate to be very clear, I think, about where we’re coming from.”
Some of their strategies are procedural maneuvers. Peters and other Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee stretched out a hearing on the GOP’s replacement to Obamacare to a marathon 27 hours.
“Some of it was a delay,” Peters said. Some of the tactics they used were just to suck up time, like a procedure that required the clerk to read the entire bill out loud in its entirety.
“It was a long night. We had to take votes a couple of times,” he said.
But he said he doesn’t want to just be an antagonist. He’s trying to keep a good relationship with Republicans to encourage them to take stands that put the country’s principles ahead of partisan interests. And if Republicans they take a tough stand, he said he’d eagerly compliment them.
Davis said she is also working with federal agencies and employees behind the scenes to oppose Trump’s agenda, a back-door channel that might help shape policies and how they are carried out.
Davis said that Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat whose skull was fractured when he was beaten by Alabama state troopers during a 1965 civil rights demonstration in Selma, Ala., has counseled members to make sure that they are being deliberate and thoughtful with their opposition.
“We are getting in the way, we are making good trouble,” Davis said, using one Lewis’ favorite phrases. “So even someone as strong as John, who really faced near death when he was getting in the way, cautions all of us in many ways, that part of what we have to keep in mind — what is the goal here? What can we do to make that difference, to really move the needle.”
A part of making progress during any administration, she said, is building relationships, particularly with people who more often disagree with her. She said she can’t be over the top if she wants to win them over, and she can’t make emotional appeals. Rather, she has to be firm, present facts about how policies would impact the people in their district, and be persistent.
“I generally try and engage people and people who don’t agree with me in a positive way so I can go back to them and be persistent again,” she said. “If you decide that you are going to be over the top all the time, you are not going to have people who are going to be willing to work with you.”
Democrats can be outspoken and angry, but they must have a purpose with that emotion, Luna said. It has to be more than shouting “no”, and it must be constructive. Instead, they need to propose realistic alternatives to Trump’s agenda, he said. If they don’t, they’ll fall into the same trap that snared Republicans for the eight years Obama was in the White House, he added.
“Civility doesn't mean being polite. It means building community... it means speaking truth to power, sometimes with great emotion and devotion, to achieve a public good,” Luna said. “It does not (need to) be anger reduced to nihilism, which is what has happened to too much of American discourse.”