Chris Coons’s Warning to Democrats

The Delaware senator’s insistence on civility has long annoyed the left. In an interview, he says Democrats risk defeat by matching the president “spite for spite.”

Andrew Harnik / Reuters

Senator Chris Coons has a warning for his fellow Democrats: Check your anti-Trump fervor.

“I understand the level of passion in my party about opposing Donald Trump,” the Delaware senator told me in an interview yesterday, “but I do think we have to be cautious about not engaging in the same kind of withering intraparty contests to prove our purity and our fervor in opposing Trump on absolutely everything, on absolutely all fronts.”

For most of the Trump presidency, the man who holds former Vice President Joe Biden’s old Senate seat has been in an ever-so-respectful feud with his party’s left flank, all because of comments like these. Left-wingers see his zeal for decorum and politeness as a weakness in the face of a pugnacious president—the equivalent of wielding a butter knife against a battalion of bazookas. The latest rift broke open on Monday morning, after Coons condemned the thousands of baseball fans who chanted “Lock him up!” when Trump appeared on the jumbotron during Sunday’s World Series game at Nationals Park. “I frankly think the office of the president deserves respect, even when the actions of our president at times don't,” Coons said on CNN.

Coons, who is up for reelection to a third term next year in a reliably blue state, has no electoral imperative to ingratiate himself with Trump’s base. Yet he makes a point of befriending Republicans, and he’s angered liberals by voting for some of the president’s judicial nominees and discouraging public confrontations with administration officials. In 2018, Coons helped speed up the confirmation of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo by changing a committee vote to “present” so Republican Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia wouldn’t have to rush back from a funeral service.

Even the way Coons refers to Trump—he’s never the president but our president—sets him apart from many other Democrats. And when, on Monday, he dared to denounce a rare instance of the public registering opposition directly to the president, his critics were again annoyed. “I strongly disagree @ChrisCoons,” tweeted Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress and a former top adviser to Hillary Clinton. “I believe the Lock Him Up chant at the Nationals game was affirmatively good; not just not bad,” she added. “Because it demonstrates Trump and his policies are opposed by large numbers of normal, every day people.”

Another Democratic strategist and longtime Hillary Clinton booster, Adam Parkhomenko, had a much more direct reaction: “Dear Sen. Coons,” he tweeted, “please do go fuck yourself.”

When I spoke to Coons yesterday, he sounded a bit exasperated by the whole thing. He scoffed when I suggested that perhaps he had become chief of the civility police. “That’s not at all what I’m trying to do,” he said.

Coons told me he hadn’t even watched the World Series game and saw the chanting clip for the first time when CNN’s John Berman played it for him on the air Monday morning. He made clear that it was not the booing he was particularly concerned about—“I’m a Philadelphia sports fan,” he said with a laugh—but the thousands of people demanding to imprison the president, even if they were merely repurposing a chant that began at Trump rallies in 2016 and was directed at Clinton.

“This is a game that is broadcast internationally,” Coons told me. “The United States has worked long and hard at a reputation for rule of law and for a democratic system where elections are respected and where the courts are how we resolve disputes. And I’ve been to lots of other countries where political opponents of whoever is in power get locked up for no reason other than the political expediency of the party in power. I would hate to see the country descend to that level.”

For Coons, however, the chant at Nationals Park was just one example of a larger trend that worries him—one that encompasses both the race to defeat Trump in 2020 and the Democrats’ intensifying effort to impeach him before then.

“I don’t want to see Democrats match him spite for spite, division for division,” he said.

Coons endorsed Biden as soon as the former vice president entered the 2020 race. Yet despite the fact that the impeachment inquiry is centered on allegations that Trump tried to get Ukraine to dig up dirt on Biden, Coons is more skeptical than many other Democrats that the impeachment drive is worth it. “I think that’s a close call,” he told me, before adding that because Trump had committed an offense that was “so naked and so bald” he had given House Democrats “no choice.”

Coons worries that impeachment will overtake the party's efforts to show the public its more substantive policy agenda to combat corruption, reduce prescription drug prices, and enact tighter gun laws. “It is at risk of being drowned out if we overplay our hand in being overly partisan and in thinking that all we need to do is voice our opposition to Trump,” Coons told me. As an example, he cited Clinton’s campaign in 2016 and said it should serve as a lesson for Democrats in 2020.

“Her closing message in the campaign the last six weeks was, Have you noticed Donald Trump is crazy? He would be a dangerous man as president,” Coons said. “It didn't work. Folks had already made up their mind on that, one way or the other.”

“They wanted to hear how their life would be better with her as president rather than him,” he added, “and we should not make that mistake again.”