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WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 08: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (R) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) pose for photographs after delivering a televised response to President Donald Trump's national address about border security at the U.S. Capitol January 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. Republicans and Democrats seem no closer to an agreement on security along the southern border and ending the partial federal government shutdown, the second-longest in history. Credit: Chip Somodevilla / Pool via CNP | usage worldwide Photo by: Chip Somodevilla/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, right. and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer pose for photographs after delivering a televised response to President Donald Trump’s national address about border security at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 8, 2019.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla, Pool/AP

Last night was yet another example of the Democratic Party’s glistening ineptitude.

President Donald Trump’s border wall speech, once he’d backed off the “national emergency” idea, was anticipated to be little more than a concentrated primetime dose of xenophobic hysteria. He didn’t disappoint.

In under 10 minutes, he set up a clear, if familiar, argument: There is a crisis at the border. It threatens American security and depresses wages. The drugs brought across the border kill hundreds of Americans each week, and the immigrants themselves have committed thousands of crimes. All are equally guilty — children are merely “pawns,” not people. The wall will stop this tragedy, and the only thing preventing the wall from going up is Democrats, who opportunistically supported a barrier prior to Trump’s presidency, but object to it now in bad faith.

Trump’s spiel, as is typical of the president, was a jumble of half-truths, misrepresentations, and outright lies. And anticipating that, the Democratic leadership, in the form of Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, made Trump’s dishonesty and hatefulness the theme of their response.

“Much of what we have heard from President Trump throughout this senseless shutdown has been full of misinformation and even malice,” opened Pelosi, awkwardly standing next to a glaring Schumer.

Pelosi seems to have thought more about alliteration than what pitch would effectively challenge the inaccurate but narratively satisfying story the president had just told.

But Pelosi seems to have thought more about alliteration than what pitch would effectively challenge the inaccurate but narratively satisfying story the president had just told.

The emphasis through both leaders’ remarks circled around a central theme: The crisis isn’t real. It’s manufactured. Trump is like a child throwing a “temper tantrum,” and he’s failing to respond to a “humanitarian crisis.”

But that message rang somewhat hollow after Trump’s visceral Boschian portrait. Trump’s speech was filled with lies, but it also identified real problems: Public resources are strained — not because of immigrants, but because of the austere policies of political leaders whose primary purpose is to shrink the size of government and the social welfare programs it supports. Resources are scarce — not because of immigrants, but because historically high wealth disparities mean less profit is reaching the workers who created it. Wages are being driven down — not because of immigrants, but because Republicans, occasionally joined by Democrats, launched a decades-long battle against unions, driving membership down from a high of 35 percent in the mid-1950s, to just under 11 percent today. And what Trump said about who is hurting most is true: “Among the hardest hit are African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans.”

Where Pelosi argued that the families crossing the border “are not a security threat,” but “a humanitarian challenge,” Trump had already pre-empted the attempt to paint him as an cold-hearted tyrant by admitting in his opening line that “there is a growing humanitarian and security crisis at our southern border.”

Democrats, focused on “fact-checking” Trump’s many lies and inaccuracies, failed to acknowledge the truths that resonate more with some Americans than bloviating about barriers on the border. (H/T Pelosi). An opioid crisis does kill thousands of Americans each year. More Americans did die from drugs last year than were killed in the entire Vietnam War.

And Democrats have supported barriers at the border in the past, which does make it easy to cast today’s resistance as a cynical political ploy.

Trump’s rhetoric, if not his stilted delivery, was successful at animating the harms he attributes to immigrants. He spoke of “ruthless gangs” and “the cycle of human suffering” and the “tragic reality of illegal immigration.” He repeatedly evoked a “crisis,” and his speech put a face on the victims: “America’s heart broke the day after Christmas when a young police officer in California was savagely murdered in cold blood by an illegal alien, who just came across the border. The life of an American hero was stolen by someone who had no right to be in our country,” he said.

Of course, immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than native-born Americans, and Trump’s fear-mongering is baseless and cruel. But the response from Democratic leadership? One mention of “800,000 innocent workers across the nation — many of them veterans.”

If it seems like I’m being unfair, consider this: Between Pelosi and Schumer, Democrats made only one mention of those who should have been the protagonists of their story — the workers who are being hurt by the government shutdown. And the mention made was antiseptic.

The only color — an unsubtle pander to veterans — failed to make vivid the reality of hundreds of thousands of families going without a paycheck this winter.

“The president has chosen fear. We want to start with the facts,” intoned Pelosi, leaning again on alliteration over substance.

As underwhelming as the Democratic Party’s official response was, it was hardly a failure. Trump has backed himself into such a corner that it would be difficult to do real harm to the party’s position. But what ended up a non-event could have advanced the political ball in the Democrats’ favor, as evidenced by the responses of Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Sanders’s opening salvo? “As we speak, some 800,000 federal employees, people who are our neighbors, friends, and family members are going without pay. As working people, many of them are wondering how they will pay their mortgages, how they will feed their kids, and how they’ll be able to go to the doctor. These are people in the FBI, in the TSA, in the State Department, in the Treasury Department, and other agencies who have, in some cases, worked for the government for years.” He went on to quote a federal employee — giving literal voice to real-world concerns in the context of what has become an attenuated political battle: “I am a single mom and a federal employee, I have $100 to last me — and my vehicle payments will not be made this month. I live paycheck to paycheck, and I can’t get a side job because I still have to go to my unpaid federal job.”

“Our federal employees deserve to be treated with respect,” elaborated Sanders, “not held hostage as political pawns.”

Sanders packed more visceral humanity in the first minute or so of his remarks than in the entirety of Pelosi and Schumer’s response.

Sanders packed more visceral humanity in the first minute or so of his remarks than in the entirety of Pelosi and Schumer’s response. In Sanders’s world, those affected aren’t just “federal employees.” They are our intimates — the people who comprise our families and communities.

In fairness to Pelosi, whose net worth is nearly $30 million, framing government employees this way likely required more of an imaginative leap than it did for Sanders, one of the poorer members of Congress. But there is no excuse for impotently resorting to right-wing virtue-signaling about “veterans,” when many of the women and men affected by the government shutdown are literally charged with protecting this country — something they continue to do despite not being paid — something which, ostensibly, is Trump’s goal in securing funding for the border wall. In one sentence, Sanders not only humanized the victims, he revealed the hypocrisy of Trump’s actions.

And perhaps most importantly, he validated that there is, in fact, a crisis afoot: one created by Trump, as well as several produced by structural forces the political class has long ignored.

And perhaps most importantly, he validated that there is, in fact, a crisis afoot: one created by Trump, as well as several produced by structural forces the political class has long ignored.

“President Trump, you want to talk about crises? At a time of massive income and wealth inequality, tens of millions of workers in our country are earning starvation wages and are unable to adequately provide for their families. You want a national emergency? Thirty million Americans have no health insurance and many more are underinsured.”

“Millions of Americans including the disabled, the children, and the elderly may not be able to get the food stamps they need to eat. Pregnant mothers and their babies may go without the nutrition assistance they need to stay healthy, as the WIC program is on the verge of running out of money. Small businesses and farmers will not be able to receive the financial assistance they need — and some may go out of business. Security at our nation’s airports could be threatened if TSA employees and air traffic controllers are not getting paid. People who are buying or selling their homes may see significant delay because the Federal Housing Administration is unable to process and approve mortgage applications.”

Rather than spend too much time picking apart factual inaccuracies, Sanders challenged Trump’s narrative with a more powerful one: Yes, Americans are in trouble, but there’s only one person to blame for the current impasse.

“Let me be as clear as I can be,” said Sanders, “this shutdown should never have happened.”

In their remarks, Pelosi and Schumer delved into the politics that preceded the shutdown, but in a way that read as opaque and jargony. “On the very first day of this Congress, House Democrats passed Senate Republican legislation to reopen government and fund smart, effective border security solutions. But the president is rejecting these bipartisan bills which would reopen government.” Did you follow that? Because I didn’t when listening live. “Democrats passed Senate Republican legislation?” It’s a classic writing mistake: In an effort to be concise, Pelosi sacrificed clarity.

Sanders, meanwhile, was an effective communicator: “As many of you will recall, on December 18, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to keep the government open. Unanimously. No Democrat or Republican opposed the bill that passed the Senate.” The explanation was plain, and the takeaway repeated for emphasis: “unanimously.”

And most importantly, Sanders used Trump’s admission that the shutdown was his own fault against him: “President Trump has made it very clear who is responsible. As you will all recall in a very public meeting he held in the Oval Office, he said, and I quote, “I am proud to shut down the government … I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you [Chuck Schumer] for it.”

That both Schumer and Pelosi got through their remarks — the eyes of millions of Americans on them — without once quoting that language back to the president is in and of itself an act of mind-blowing political negligence.

Sanders addressed Mitch McConnell directly, asking that the Senate majority leader respect the bipartisan consensus coming out of the House and bring the Democrats’ identical Senate bill to a vote; and he deftly used the statements of Trump’s own agencies against him — appealing to the authority of “Trump’s own State Department” and “Trump’s own Drug Enforcement Administration” to undermine some of the president’s lies about the connection between border crossings and terrorism or the drug crisis.

And he wisely emphasized those immigration-related policies that draw substantial bipartisan consensus — like the DACA program, which Trump has threatened, and Trump’s policy of separating children at the border. (It goes without saying that Schumer and Pelosi mentioned neither. They never even mentioned the appalling cost of the wall: $70 billion. Sanders did).

The temptation to fact-check is understandable. And a certain amount of fact-checking is necessary to keep Trump accountable. But poking holes in Trump’s narrative, by itself, is not enough.

But perhaps more stunning than Sanders’s performance was that of Ocasio-Cortez, who in a few short minutes on Rachel Maddow’s show was able to undermine Trump’s narrative by appealing not just to the humanity of native-born Americans, but by speaking to the inherent dignity and value of immigrants themselves.

“[Trump] talked about what happened the day after Christmas? The day of Christmas, a child died in ICE custody,” she emphasized with a level of authentic passion that feels strangely out of place on the evening news (but shouldn’t). It wasn’t the fact-checking that went viral. It was this simple claim to human decency.

And this is an important point: The temptation to fact-check is understandable. And a certain amount of fact-checking is necessary to keep Trump accountable. But poking holes in Trump’s narrative, by itself, is not enough.

There is enough truth in Trump’s description of the struggles Americans face that it can’t be refuted with claims that he didn’t get the story exactly right. The narrative threads that represent accurate claims about the problems of everyday Americans need to be spun into something more authentic than what Trump is offering — a story that respects the victims, but points to an enemy with actual teeth. A compelling counter-narrative: Immigrants didn’t cause the opioid epidemic, the pharmaceutical industry did. Immigrants didn’t depress wages — politicians doing the bidding of concentrated corporate power did.

Trump cannot be allowed to make himself the face of compassion for average Americans — not even Republicans. To prevent that from happening, the Democratic Party needs representatives who bear some relationship to ordinary people — not the well-preserved totems to the anti-aging powers of wealth that spawned a thousand memes last night.

Both Trump on the one hand, and Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders on the other, identified several crises, but perhaps the most exigent is the crisis of leadership. It’s either time for Democrats to learn, or it’s time for them to change the guard.

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