The next few days will tell a lot about the conscience, courage, and political calculus of congressional Democrats. With a Friday deadline looming for passage of a budget to keep the government open, this is the moment of peak leverage for the minority party. How that leverage is used—or squandered—will speak volumes about which issues and groups are seen as most important—and which can be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.
The clearest moment of truth relates to the fate of the 800,000 Dreamers whose future hangs in the balance after this administration’s cruel and calculated decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in September. Full implementation was delayed until March, and now the fate of those children and families is a political football in a “game” filled with players who are hostile to brown-skinned immigrants.
Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi have said publicly and privately that they will not agree to a spending deal without a clear and clean solution for the Dreamers, and the movement has lifted up the slogan, “No Dream, No Deal.” Many Democratic senators such as Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren have gone on the record expressing their commitment to vote against any funding bill that does not include a solution for the Dreamers. Harris said, “I will not vote for an end-of-year spending bill until we are clear about what we are going to do to protect and take care of our DACA young people in this country.”
Not all Democrats are so resolute, however, and their ambivalence calls into question their conscience and their courage. There are few issues as morally clear-cut as the situation of the Dreamers. These are children, living, in most cases, in the only country they’ve known as home. Even if one accepts this country’s immigration laws as legitimate (something hard to do in a country where the racial superiority of whites was the defining component of immigration policy from 1790 until 1965), these young people are blameless. But the Trump administration has struck fear and uncertainty into the lives of millions of people with its promise to send armed government agents to round up children and ship them out of this country. “Unconscionable” is too soft a word to describe a situation that quite literally evokes prior periods in US history when government-backed slave catchers pursued a different era’s dark-skinned residents.
The vast majority of Americans are not as hateful as the current occupant of the Oval Office would like to believe. In poll after poll, the overwhelming majority of people support the government providing protection for the Dreamers. In a Fox News poll (yes, Fox News), 60 percent of Republicans said it was important for Congress to pass legislation to protect the Dreamers. Why, then, is this even a question? That’s where the issue of courage comes in.
The sad truth of the matter is that many Democrats and their cautious consultants still conduct their politics by sticking their fingers in the wind and trying to discern how particular issues will play with conservative white working-class voters. Since so many of those people voted Republican, some Democrats cling to the belief that electoral success depends on distancing oneself from people of color. It’s never stated that baldly, but that is the practical consequence and clear implication of their cowardice and timidity.
A courageous leader does not cater to the lowest common denominator of the electorate. A leader educates, informs, and changes minds, especially when those minds are infected with bigoted views. Martin Luther King Jr. clearly articulated the decision-making required when facing a moment of truth when he said, “Cowardice asks the question—is it safe? Expediency asks the question—is it politic? Vanity asks the question—is it popular? But conscience asks the question—is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; but one must take it because it is right.”
While standing strong on DACA is clearly a just and righteous cause, it doesn’t even require preparing to die on the proverbial political hill—particularly for politicians in states such as California, Florida, and Texas with large numbers of Latinos. The largest number of Dreamers live in California, but Senator Dianne Feinstein has yet to take a stance on how she’ll vote this week. Florida’s Bill Nelson is up for reelection, and his voice has been muted. Kyrsten Sinema aspires to be the next senator from Arizona, and this is a chance for her to show where she stands. Those are just a few of the elected officials who will reveal their true colors over the next few days.
Most politicians are inherently risk-averse, but there are moments when character and leadership are laid bare. This week—when we will see whether or not Senator Chuck Schumer and the Senate Democrats fight to protect the Dreamers—is such a moment. Call your Senator at 202-224-3121 and use your voice to stiffen spines. Lives are in the balance. Hunger strikes are underway. And we are watching how our leaders respond to the urgency of the hour.