One thing you can always count on is that the Republican Party will go to the mat for its “principles,” no matter how long it takes, how unpopular their policies, nor how many people they hurt. Witness, for example, the culmination this week of years of effort by the GOP to give more money to billionaires with the passage of a tax bill—without a single Democratic vote—that is wildly unpopular, will put further stress on the middle class, leave 13 million people without health insurance coverage, literally kill people for lack of care, and, without a fix, gut Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, among many other deleterious outcomes.
Another thing you can always count on is that you can’t count on Democratic Party leaders to stand up for their stated principles, no matter how often they give you their word, and no matter how popular, necessary, or morally just the position they claim to take.
The most recent and painful evidence of this lack of conviction on the part of congressional Democrats is the decision this week by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to renege on earlier promises to withhold needed Democratic votes from any spending bill passed before the end of this year unless it includes a clean DREAM Act.
The details are now well known. Last September, President Donald J. Trump eliminated protections for nearly 800,000 young immigrants by overturning the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and telling Congress to deal with it. Ostensibly knowing that the GOP—which is now indelibly linked to a white nationalist agenda—would not take action on its own to protect DACA recipients, often referred to as “Dreamers,” Schumer and Pelosi claimed the high ground. They called Trump’s decision “morally and economically wrong.” In an op-ed published by CNN they wrote: “This is not, and should not be, a partisan or political issue. Congress has a duty, and an obligation, to protect these Dreamers. We are ready to work with Republicans to get the bipartisan DREAM Act signed into law.” Schumer also called Trump’s action “heartless and brainless,” and both leaders vowed to attach a clean DREAM Act to any must-pass legislation this year.
But as the Washington Post reported on Tuesday, both Schumer and Pelosi began to back away from their pledge just as the deadline loomed to pass a spending bill and avert a government shutdown before the Christmas recess.
A vow is a promise, a commitment, a pledge, an oath. It is your word. And if being “as good as your word” is a sign of integrity, what to make of the fact that both Schumer and Pelosi appear to be going back on theirs? What to make of the backtracking in light of the fact that public support among both Democrats and Republicans for passing the DREAM Act—and for a path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants—is extremely high, as evidenced by numerous polls, ranging from 69 percent to well over 80 percent of respondents?
What to make of the fact that during two weeks of protests in and around the House and Senate and in state offices, both Schumer and California Democrat Dianne Feinstein had Dreamers who were protesting the lack of action by Democrats arrested, or that Schumer had Dreamers protesting at his New York office met by police? Let me repeat: Democratic senators had Dreamers—who are already at increasing risk of deportation—arrested for protesting the Democrats’ moral failures.
What to make of the fact that Schumer and Pelosi stayed silent when seven Dreamers and an ally risked deportation when they were arrested in Schumer’s office and began a six-day hunger strike in the D.C. jail to protest his inaction, or when more than 1,500 Dreamers blocked the cozy underground tunnels Congresspeople use to go between the Capitol and their office buildings? What to make of the fact that the DREAM Act failed in 2010 when the Democrats were in the majority, due to no votes of five Democratic senators? As Erika Andiola, a Dreamer, one of the leaders of the fight to pass the DREAM Act, and one of those who participated in the hunger strike, stated at a press conference this morning: “We heard now they want to wait until January, they want to wait until March. But we are here to tell them we can no longer wait. Dreamers are getting deported every day and we are not going to stand here and just wait.”
Taking a stand for immigrants, even a stand that leads to a government shutdown, is a principled, courageous, moral act. Pelosi has begun reacting to the public pressure and the widespread outrage of immigration rights advocates by asserting that Democrats won’t vote for a spending bill in the House without a clean DREAM Act. The problem is it’s too little, too late, because GOP Speaker Paul Ryan has enough votes in the House to pass a bill, and Pelosi knows it. Her newfound voice of principle rings hollow. “Hopefully Pelosi’s statement today is not a day late or dollar short. It’s disappointing that it took so much pressure to get her to do the right thing,” says Murshed Zaheed, vice president and political director at CREDO. “But like she has over the years, she failed to lead from the beginning and only followed after it became obvious to her where the political wind was flowing in the progressive base.”
It’s in the Senate where Democratic votes are critical and where the commitment not to give up those votes on a spending bill without a clean DREAM Act is crucial. It’s also in the Senate where Chuck Schumer, notwithstanding his strong admonitions of Trump’s moral failures, seems unable to muster the courage and the backbone to stand up for his own stated principles. So far, Democratic—and Independent—Sens. Dick Durbin (IL), Bernie Sanders (VT), Elizabeth Warren (MA), Cory Booker (NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) Ed Markey (MA), Kamala Harris (CA), Maizie Hirono (HI), Jeff Merkley (OR), and Richard Blumenthal (CT) all have committed to voting no on any spending bill without a clean DREAM Act. But, asks Cristina Jiménez, the co-founder and managing director of United We Dream, in a statement to Rewire, “Where are all the other Dems? Are they going to enable Trump to deport immigrant youth? Let me be very clear, Democrats who vote for the CR this week without the Dream Act are taking a vote to deport immigrant youth. Simple.”
Schumer must show leadership now, immediately, in pressing those Democrats who are known to waffle on hard decisions.
Leadership is not about the easy path. It is about lighting the way. It’s not about succumbing to the lowest common denominator, which in this case is the clearly racist, xenophobic white nationalist agenda that has gripped the Republican Party. It’s about standing up for what is right; it’s about what you do when it’s tough; it’s about hard choices. It’s about pursuing freedom and democracy and human rights by refusing to budge on the most basic principles of human decency and what is right. And leadership is what brings people together now and in the future, whereas lack of conviction is a sure sign of decline.