February 15, 2017 Partisan attacks as team-building
This year, several of President Trump’s appointees have been approved on party-line votes. In particular, there was a significant mass mobilization of Democrats against the Sessions and DeVos nominations, if my Facebook news feed is any guide.
Why do Democrats bother? They weren’t going to get enough Republican votes to defeat the nominations, and even if they had defeated the nominations, there is no reason to believe that President Trump’s next choice would be more ideologically congenial. I’m not sure that (from a liberal perspective) Sessions is any worse than whoever a President Cruz would have appointed.* And since DeVos endorsed Jeb Bush, I think she’s probably more moderate than whoever President Cruz would have appointed. So if the goal of this mobilization was to move justice or education policy to the Left, the effort spent on these nominations was a complete waste of time, and would probably have been a waste of time even if these nominations had been defeated.
So here’s an alternative explanation: the goal of political parties isn’t to be ideologically coherent, but to win elections. How do you win elections? Not just by persuading centrists, but also by motivating your base to organize, give money, vote etc. And what does that? A good fight with the other side, whether a winning fight or a losing one. So Democrats were spoiling for a fight with Trump- if it hadn’t been Sessions and DeVos, it would have been something else.
To draw an analogy: the Obama stimulus plan probably wasn’t that different from what President McCain would have proposed. But Republicans successfully mobilized their base to fight it. Why? Because Republicans needed a fight.
*Though from a libertarian perspective he is much more problematic.