It is famously said that Ginger Rogers had to do everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels. Over the next two years, Nancy Pelosi and the House Democratic majority that she is likely to lead must perform a similarly difficult two-step.
On the one hand, they will have to engage in day-to-day combat with Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell over budgetary and other legislation, the Mueller probe, and a score of other scandals that congressional Republicans have refused to investigate. On the other hand, if they want to extend their power in 2020—and, just as importantly, hold onto it in 2022—they are going to have to think and act with an eye toward the long term. Such strategic thinking is something Republicans have lately been better at than Democrats. But, as I argued this summer, control of the House provides the Democrats with a golden opportunity:
A congressional majority gives a party the power to reframe its policies, reset voters’ expectations, and define the terms of the next presidential election. In the 1990s, then Speaker Newt Gingrich pioneered a new style of far-right partisanship, attacked official expertise, and promoted the privatization of Social Security—paths George W. Bush followed as president. During Obama’s second term, congressional Republicans normalized partisan investigations of non-scandals (Benghazi and IRS), fetishized the repeal of Obamacare, and, at the instigation of House conservatives, blew up bipartisan immigration reform, leaving that issue to fester—all actions that paved the way (intentionally or not) for Donald Trump.
Should Democrats win in November, they too can use Congress to shape the political landscape to their advantage—not nihilistically, like the Republicans, but not naively, either. They need to understand that moving policy must take a back seat to building their long-term power. They shouldn’t be afraid to force Republicans to take vote after tough vote on such popular-with-the-public issues as infrastructure and gun safety. The legislation should be as strong as the Democratic caucus will allow and aimed not at winning the president’s signature but at drawing his veto. In that way, voters in 2020 can decide who’s on whose side.
Even more importantly, Democrats should use their control of Congress to hammer out a positive policy vision that appeals both to the base and to persuadable Trump voters. This they can do even if they only win back the House.
Here at the Washington Monthly, we try to perform a similarly difficult two-step, in a way that I think is nearly unique in journalism. On the one hand, our web-focused writers and editors—Nancy LeTourneau, Martin Longman, David Atkins, Joshua Alvarez, and Eric Cortellessa—provide you with keen analysis of breaking news. On the other hand, our print-focused team—Phillip Longman, Gilad Edelman, Daniel Block, Grace Gedye, and a host of brilliant contributing writers—help shape Washington policy conversations by focusing relentlessly on new ideas that the political class has yet to recognize—like how to give market power to ordinary citizens, tame the tech giants, slash health care costs overnight, and make politicians pay attention to climate change—all with the strategic aim of crafting a policy vision that can move the country forward and appeal not just to Democrats but to fed up independents and Republicans, too.
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