Democrats were reeling just a month ago, worried that their party was locked out of power, rife with infighting and bedeviled by questions of how it can win coming elections.
Then Donald Trump took office.
The president’s tumultuous first four weeks in the White House — highlighted by the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and renewed questions about the Trump campaign’s connections to the Russian government — have given Democrats an unexpected lift less than a month into the new White House.
“This White House simply needs to be given enough rope to make a fatal mistake — or series of them,” said Adrianne Marsh, who managed the re-election campaign of Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., in 2012.
Instead of battling a popular new president working with an electoral mandate, Democrats see the White House sinking into daily controversies that have distracted from the president’s agenda and, they say, damaged his appeal. The Trump administration’s early moves have also sparked protests across the country, which Democratic leaders say have given their party an essential boost of energy and enthusiasm among core left-leaning voters when the party needed it most.
It’s enough for Democrats to forget about their own problems — at least for now.
“There’s still a lot of serious concern and worry about the direction he’s gonna take the country,” said Guy Cecil, a top Democratic strategist who’s the chairman of the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA. “But in the middle of that, I think you have found a growing sense of optimism . . . that there are levers of power that we can deploy. It’s not going to solve all of our problems, but I think it’s had an impact.”
Democrats insist they recognize that Trump is still in the early days of his presidency, with plenty of time to regain political momentum. They’re also keenly aware that no politician in recent memory has more often defied predictions of doom.
But even if they warn it’s too soon to declare victory, they say Flynn’s resignation was just the latest controversy to strike the White House that could cause political problems now and in the future.
Senate Republicans, they point out, are vowing to investigate potential connections between Trump, officials on his presidential campaign and the Russian government. Trump’s polarizing executive order to temporarily halt immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries is stuck in legal limbo after a federal appeals panel failed to reinstate it last week.
And the White House this week also saw one of its Cabinet nominees, Andrew Puzder, withdraw from consideration as secretary of the Department of Labor. He was the first Cabinet nominee to fail to clear the Senate.
“This is the Keystone Cops,” said Dan Malloy, the governor of Connecticut and chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. “This is a bunch of people running around hitting each other on the head. Could it get worse?”
Polls of Trump’s approval rating suggest Democrats have reason to feel confident. A survey from the Pew Research Center released Thursday reported that 39 percent of Americans approve of the president’s job performance, compared with 56 percent who don’t.
Those numbers are much lower than the approval ratings for other recent presidents at similar times in their tenure: Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, for instance, each had an approval rating above 50 percent.
Even in Iowa, which the president won by nearly 10 points in November, Trump’s numbers are underwater. A Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll released this week found his approval at 42 percent, with 49 percent disapproval.
Voters “didn’t like him on Election Day; they don’t like him now,” said Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster and longtime veteran of Wisconsin politics. “They voted for him out of sheer desperation and because they hated the alternative.”
Trump’s struggles might have another effect on the Democratic Party: uniting it. Since Hillary Clinton’s defeat in November, the party’s two ideological factions — its base of progressive activists and the more moderate establishment — have battled each other for control of the party’s future.
The friction hasn’t always been pretty for Democratic lawmakers, who have been criticized as not doing enough to oppose Trump and have even faced the threat of primary challenges against them. Many activists vow that they’ll continue to threaten primaries if party leaders don’t keep up the pressure on the new president.
But some activist leaders also say the first month of Trump’s presidency has cooled intra-party tensions.
“It’s important for Democrats to have intra-party debates on how we can better address the needs of middle- and working-class Americans, but Trump’s presidency has provided us with a common enemy and an urgent call to action,” said Shannon Jackson, executive director of Our Revolution, a progressive advocacy group, and former aide to independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Given the perception that Trump is struggling, Democrats are wondering what they should do about it — if anything at all.
Some top lawmakers and leaders have become increasingly critical of the president, castigating him and calling for investigations into any ties he or officials who have worked for him might have with Russia.
Most Democratic strategists dismiss talk of Trump’s early foibles affecting the midterm elections of 2018. Politics has a way of changing quickly, they say, and a lot can happen in the next 18 months.
It doesn’t help that the party faces an unforgiving landscape in federal races. McCaskill, for instance, is one of 10 Senate Democrats running for re-election next year in states that Trump won. In many of them, as in Missouri, Trump won by a massive margin of almost 20 points or more.
By comparison, only one Republican senator, Dean Heller of Nevada, is running for re-election next year in a state Hillary Clinton won.
Republicans also hold a solid majority in the House of Representatives, where they would need to lose 24 or more seats to become the minority party.
“We have a long way to go,” Cecil said. “I don’t think anybody is busy claiming victory.”