The Democrats’ Ultimate Strategy for Success

Now that the government shutdown is over, the media is leading a discussion about who won. Personally, I think Kevin Drum nailed it.

…I have no idea who won. But I do know this: the fact that we’re so obsessed with this is just a bit of fresh evidence that H. sapiens as a species is little more than a modestly souped up version of P. troglodytes. For chimps, knowing precisely who won and who surrendered in every encounter—and therefore who outranks you—is vitally important and has been bred into the species by millions of years of evolution. A few hundred thousands generations later, it still controls human society. The only difference between chimps and humans is that they do it with screeching and feces flinging, while we do it with Twitter and cable news. I think their way is probably more dignified.

That is, in fact, a demeaning analogy. But it is important to note that our constant need to calibrate winners and losers is exactly the kind of approach that helped pave the way for a president whose only concern is winning. It obliterates any discussion of policy and strategy (neither of which is a the forte of someone like Trump) in favor of pontifications about which politician(s) came out on top. In most cases, how a particular outcome affects the American people is nothing more than a side reference that doesn’t really matter. Everything comes down to the dominance game that is being played in Washington. If you are looking for a reason why so many Americans don’t feel heard in our political system, that is a much better explanation than the ones we often hear.

One thing we can all take away from this recent shutdown is that elections matter. That is where the people’s voice is heard the loudest. Most recently that meant giving Republicans control of the presidency, the House, and the Senate. When it comes to Democrats, their options are limited. Especially in the Senate, the party in the minority still has some power. But if we learned anything about how Republicans used it during the Obama years,  it should be clear that the nature of that power makes it possible to stop something from happening, but is pretty limited when it comes to affirmatively passing policy objectives.

The way that minority parties have typically been able to make limited gains on their policy objectives is via the use of leverage in negotiations with the party in power. For Democrats, that route is somewhat limited as well, given that the Republican base seems to reward those who draw lines in the sand rather than those who actually govern.

I’m sorry to sound like such a “Debbie Downer.” That is a different role for me, given that my errors are usually due to over-optimism. But it is important to correctly analyze these power dynamics in order to craft effective strategies, especially for the party in the minority.

If we examine the agreement reached yesterday between McConnell and Schumer through the lens I am describing, the fact that Democrats got CHIP funded for six years and a Senate vote on DACA is actually a pretty good outcome for a party in the minority. Those who want something more should obviously keep pushing, but getting everyone out to vote this November is the ultimate strategy for success.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.