Kick em while theyre down

Congratulations, my fellow donkeys! Not that long ago, plenty of smart people thought that gerrymandering guaranteed a Republican House until 2012 and that the red-state/blue-state divide guaranteed a Republican Senate until, oh, 2112. But you proved them wrong and won not only Congress, but a majority of the governorships to boot.

Take some time off to dance in the end zone, but not that long. Remember that in the grand scheme of things, youve won the battle of 06 but not the war for an enduring majority. And an even bigger battle is coming in 08, when Republicans, frantic to regain power, might even do something desperate, like change their ways.

Youll be getting plenty of advice about what to do with your newfound power (limited, of course, by whatsisname in the White House) and how to set the table for 2008. So heres my advice, free (and probably worth it).

First, share the credit and forget about blame. Inevitably, some in the party will interpret the victory as a vindication or repudiation of one theory or another about how to win elections. Every election is an important data point, but a midterm election six years through one of the most incompetent administrations in American history is not necessarily a replicable event. So those who view this Democratic victory as proof that Democrats must become the party of, say, counter-polarization, or of the angry base, or of whatever, should be reminded that George W. Bush will not be on the ballot in 2008. Theres never one path to political success, and theres no guarantee that the political landscape in two years will look anything like it does today. On the blame front, even before the election there was some anticipatory carping about an alleged failure by Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, to throw money into enough races to make the Democratic victory even bigger. Give me a break. A wins a win.

Subscribe Online & Save 33%Second, share the spotlight. Theres been a lot of agonizing in recent years about the absence of any single voice for the Democratic Party. At present, we have two voices, those of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Now, mutual resentment between House and Senate members may be an ancient Washington tradition, but it would be nice to put that aside for a while. The last thing Democrats need is endless press about Pelosi and Reid jockeying for position and stepping on each others message. The reality is that only presidentsand for a brief period, presidential candidatestruly personify a political party, for the very good reason that they are the only people who can make news by clearing their throats. So lets hope the new congressional poobahs can magnify their voices through cooperation, and it would also be nice if they coordinated with state and local Democrats, not to mention the Democratic National Committee as well.

Third, make it instantly clear that this will be a very different Congress. Democrats were able to seize the mantle of change in this election because it was impossible for Republicans to avoid accountability for the status quo. Thats over. Right off the bat, Democrats should take bold steps to clean up both houses of Congress, enacting ethics and lobbying reform legislation (preferably tougher than what the Democratic caucuses agreed on earlier this year). Hearings on public financing of elections would be helpful. The House should make it clear that the Rules committee is no longer an inflexible graveyard for amendments that arent endorsed by the leadership. Game-playing on roll-call votes should be eschewed. And yes, Congress should finally begin exercising the oversight and investigations responsibilities the GOP abandonedespecially with respect to the Iraq disasterwith one major caveat: The congressional leadership should quietly make it clear that its own committee and subcommittee chairs (most of whom will become very energized by the unfamiliar feel of the gavel) will be equally subject to oversight, and that caucus discipline will be applied to those who go far off message in order to watch themselves on television each night.

Fourth and finally, reject the false choice between getting something done and throwing anvils to the GOP. Whenever possible, do both. Ideally, the legislative agenda should simultaneously reflect Democratic and public priorities, divide and embarrass Republicans, stand a chance of enactment or of provoking a Bush veto, and counter negative stereotypes about Democrats. Restoring budget controls and honest government accountingand perhaps even attacking executive-branch cronyism and incompetencewould meet these standards. So would aggressive efforts to enact intelligence reform and prevent nuclear terrorism. And so would family-friendly legislation such as expanded medical leave. Dont be too neurotic about the possibility that George W. Bush might actually sign one or two of these bills. Soon enough, hell be history. And if Democrats play their cards right, so will the idea of a lasting Republican majority.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.