Politics & Government

2017: The year the people, not Congress or Trump, set the agenda

After a Senate career spent elevating victims of sexual harassment and assault as a defining political focus, Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand has assumed her place at the head table of the Democrats’ anti-Trump movement.
After a Senate career spent elevating victims of sexual harassment and assault as a defining political focus, Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand has assumed her place at the head table of the Democrats’ anti-Trump movement. NYT

2017 was one of those seminal, once-in-a-generation years when Washington didn’t set its own agenda, when constituents rather than leaders drove the debate and dialogue.

Old rules of defining political success and influencing public policy were out. Organically driven movements, pushed by trending topics such as #MeToo, #TakeTheKnee and #lasvegasshooting drove the email traffic to congressional offices.

Congressional leaders and the White House struggled to adapt to the new political mandates. Speeches back home and town halls were out; connecting via social media was in. Taking cues from like-minded strangers bonding on Facebook mattered; the congressional schedule hardly did.

It's a stunning result, if not maddening for Washington officials, considering the macro-political picture: One party controlling the White House and both houses of Congress for the first time in 10 years. And believing it could count on a Supreme Court leaning in its favor.

Instead, congressional leaders and the Trump administration struggled to adapt to the new political mandates, and never really did. At the White House, the traditional post-election presidential mandate was invisible. So was the effectiveness of the bully pulpit, which evolved into government by decree — executive orders — or early morning tweets offering not lofty pronouncements or agendas but often jabs at enemies.

Congress spent the year taking long breaks and stumbling through legislation that often went nowhere. Lawmakers committed much of the spring and summer to wrangling over the repeal and replacement of Obamacare, ultimately falling short. They spent the fall trying to craft a federal budget, and could only approve a series of stopgaps.

Only a last-minute tax overhaul gave Washington the veneer of a major accomplishment, but the issues most on the minds of people back home – immigration, guns, help for hurricane and wildfire victims, children’s health insurance – were kicked into 2018.

In short, Washington had trouble figuring out how to connect with constituents who were using 2017-vintage means of making themselves heard.

Under pre-2017 rules, the new Trump administration and emboldened GOP majorities on Capitol Hill should have had a year full of achievements. The economy roared through its more robust months in memory. Stock exchanges climbed into record territory. Consumer confidence soared. All this usually means Congress has an easier time crafting a budget, since revenues are up, allowing the new president’s initiatives to win easy approval.

None of that happened. Gallup approval numbers for the president – 35 percent on Dec. 19 -- and Congress – averaging 19 percent this year — flirted with historic lows. The tax cut was quickly put together at the end of the year, without hearings or any effort to engage Democrats, largely so Republicans could get a win.

At a Dec. 20 White House victory lap, the president and congressional Republicans hailed what they said was a defining achievement. But it constituents now are more focused on and concerned with some very different matters.

Of the top five themes logged by Chartbeat, which tracks media traffic, harassment topped the list. Domestic terrorism and violence ranked fourth and disasters, such as this summer’s hurricanes placed fifth. Only one political topic, overall reaction to President Donald Trump’s first year, was in the mix at third.

The saga of the harassment debate illustrated the change in how political influence and dialogue had changed, and how Washington struggled to respond.

The way people engage is a little different than when we started nine years ago

Jenny Beth Martin, president, Tea Party Patriots

The outrage that ultimately fueled the #MeToo momentum first accelerated during the 2016 presidential campaign, when Trump ridiculed Republican rival Carly Fiorina’s appearance, broadcaster Megyn Kelly’s blood and finally, was revealed on the “Access Hollywood” audio tape boasting how a celebrity could “grab them (women) by the p---y.”

The defeat of Democrat Hillary Clinton, a crushing setback after a generation’s worth of incremental but steady progress, added to the mounting anger. In 1991, after law professor Anita Hill accused Supreme Court nominee of sexual harassment, women mobilized. 1992 was touted as the “Year of the Woman” after four women won U.S. Senate seats. It was the most women ever elected to the Senate in a single year.

The mood going into 2017 was very different. “The difference was the misogyny we saw in the campaign on the part of Donald Trump,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey, a nonpartisan research group.

“It was the way he used gender as part of his power,” said Walsh, a center staff member since 1981.

Social media helped organize the women’s march in Washington, which attracted an estimated 400,000 people, the day after Trump’s inaugural. Just as important, there were about 400 other such marches around the country the same day involving millions more.

The next month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell interrupted Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. His criticism — “Nevertheless she persisted” — became a rallying cry for women tired of being silenced. #LetLizSpeak quickly became a top trending Twitter topic.

The marches and the Senate incident helped ignite a movement that would eventually lead to the extraordinary scene in the U.S. Senate 11 months later.

Conventional wisdom feels different

Debbie Walsh, director, Center for American Women and Politics

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., was angry when her colleague, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., was accused of sexual harassment from several women.

She didn’t rely solely on the traditional routes to effecting change --a hearing, a bill introduction or a statement on the Senate floor. She posted “Senator Franken should step aside” on her Facebook page at 8:26 a.m. Dec. 6. Other women senators, and eventually men, joined her. The next day, Franken announced he would resign from the Senate.

It was a telling moment. The outrage against sexual harassment had been building for weeks, and Congressional leaders had been slow to respond.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., confronted with allegations against veteran Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., vowed on Nov. 26 “zero tolerance” for anyone involved in such misconduct and called swiftly for an ethics investigation. Pelosi then worked behind the scenes to get Conyers to give up his position as top Judiciary Committee Democrat.

That move came after some pushback. Earlier the same day, she had called him “an icon in our country” while reiterating her call for an ethics probe and foreshadowing his announcement saying he “would do the right thing.” In fact, as more allegations surfaced, and Pelosi and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus urged Conyers, who had served for 52 years, to step down. On Dec. 5, he resigned his seat.

21 The number of women in the U.S. Senate. Sixteen are Democrats. Five are Republicans.

The rapid-fire developments were a stark lesson for Washington that leaders were no longer setting the congressional agenda. Constituents were driving the dialogue in fast-moving, modern ways.

For years, the path to Washington influence was to hire a lobbyist. On the grassroots level, it meant organizing and getting phone banks going. It could mean a meeting with a lawmaker or a key congressional staffer or two explaining the problem, the solution and the strategy.

Not anymore. “Now you can quickly have a thousand points of activism. You can click instantly and organize," said Jenny Beth Martin, president of the Tea Party Patriots.

All this has left official Washington baffled and unsure about how to respond and proceed.

Lawmakers see millions of messages urging a fix to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows an estimated 800,000 young people brought to this country by undocumented immigrant parents to stay here. Yet Congress left for the year without any resolution.

Same with the other popular social media flashpoints: Climate change. Government surveillance. Aid to Puerto Rico. Guns.

Instead, Republican lawmakers headed home touting their overhaul of the nation’s tax system, changes that polls routinely show are highly unpopular and confusing.

After the Senate tax vote Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was confident he could sell the plan. “If we can’t sell this to the American people we ought to go into another line of work," he said. But the simple acknowledgment by many Republicans that the the major achievement of the new Congress and administration still must be sold to the public clamoring for action on other topics speaks to diverging agendas between elected leaders and their constituents.

Some lawmakers concede there is a significant disconnect.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who faces a tough re-election next year in a state Trump won by 42 percentage points, said he struggles to answer social media groundswells. “I have a hard time,” he said.

The challenge for Manchin, and the members of Congress facing the voters next year, is they face a series of new political movements and rules that are still evolving:

▪ Millennials. They’re now the most populous voting age living generation, having passed the baby boomers last year.

They’re beginning to get more interested and involved in politics, said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of CIRCLE at Tufts University, which studies youth voter trends.

Millennials have seen in just the past year or two how grassroots initiatives have impact in setting bottom-up agenda. The Black Lives Matter movement provoked dialogue about police practices in minority communities. The protests against Confederate flags and icons has led to the toppling of such statues and symbols around the country.

Openly transgender candidate Danica Roem, herself a 33-year-old millennial, in November won a Virginia legislative seat by defeating a veteran conservative. The effort to nominate Bernie Sanders as the Democratic candidate for president last year has continued with the potential to make him a viable 2020 candidate.

“They don’t feel they’re the only ones in the room under 50 anymore,” said Kawashima-Ginsberg of millennials.

▪ Fleeting movements. Organic political movements historically do not last long, and the lesson for the politics of the future is to act fast and decisively or lose the moment – and the support of constituents.

While the tea party crusade helped Republicans win control of Congress in 2010, it’s had only sporadic success maintaining any momentum. Tea party groups continue to push for a balanced federal budget, for instance, even as the Republican-controlled Congress approved a tax reform plan estimated to boost deficits by at least $1 trillion over the next 10 years.

Yet quick-moving movements are how political persuasion is likely to work in the future. Political parties lack the influence they once did and “there’s a lack of belonging to anything anymore,” said Will Rogers, former Polk County, Iowa, Republican chairman and now a lobbyist.

What 2017 has taught constituents is that the path to Washington influence is to instantly organize and demand quick action, as the #MeToo movement did to heighten awareness of sexual harassment and push out those who had been accused of misconduct.

▪ The Trump army. His overall approval ratings may be consistently dismal, but his followers remain a vocal, effective force.

Republicans in Congress remain largely reluctant to defy the White House. Trump supporters continue to make it clear they want a strong U.S.-Mexico border wall, for example. They provided social media support for Cabinet and judicial nominees who in most cases had little trouble winning confirmation in the Republican-led Senate.

Republican approval of Trump in the Gallup Poll earlier this month was 78 percent, down somewhat from the 83 percent average since he became president, but still strong.

▪ The rise of women. Women got the biggest boost from 2017’s rules of engagement. Walsh’s center’s nonpartisan political training program for women usually attracts about 180 people. This year attendance hit 300 and people had to be turned away. Partner programs in other states saw similar responses.

In Congress, those accused of misbehavior were quickly pressured to step aside, and immediately, dispensing with the old reliance on hearings and ethics probes. The allegations against Trump resurfaced. Lawmakers quickly passed legislation requiring all members of Congress and their staffs to have mandatory training in what constitutes sexual harassment.

But any idea that women will be a united force conflicts with the political trend that has paralyzed Washington for years: Polarization. Republicans got virtually no Democratic support for their big initiatives this year. Trump routinely blasts Democrats. GOP congressional leaders rarely seek Democrats' input or counsel.

Penny Nance, president and chief executive officer at Concerned Women for America, a conservative group, warned the clout of women working together has limits. “The dividing lines are still the same,” she said, notably on abortion.

“We see it as life and death. The other side sees it as individual rights,” she said. And, she added, many conservative women do not see most issues through the lens of being “women’s issues.”

“I’m a woman, a follower of Jesus, a mother, wife and conservative. I don’t identify myself simply as one of those,” Nance said.

But here’s what’s different, and why 2017 will be seen as a line of political demarcation: Women are now unquestionably a powerful force in the national political dialogue. So are younger people, minorities, conservatives, liberals and everyone else. They don’t have to wait for a congressional leader or the president to promote their cause. They can instantly make their collective voices heard loudly. They can have influence.

“This all feels different,” said Walsh. “Something has changed.”

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid