On Thursday, House Democrats voted to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour. It was a long-sought accomplishment on a vital bill that, if enacted into law, would dramatically increase the quality of life for millions of Americans. Raising the minimum is wage is also incredibly popular: 82 percent of voters back raising the wage.
The result, however, was like a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it. Media outlets dutifully reported the story, but few who aren’t political obsessives likely heard much about it. It didn’t change the conversation, and by this weekend, it was already mostly forgotten—in large part because it has no chance of getting past the Republican Senate or Trump’s White House desk. It’s a message bill.
That’s not to say it was useless: every House Democrat running for re-election can point to their vote in mail and TV ads. Every Democratic challenger to a GOP representative who voted no will be able to slam that Republican for their vote in an attempt to win their race. So far, so good for Team Pelosi.
But that’s all about jockeying for House seats in 2020 in an environment where there are few Republican seats that can realistically be picked up until the next redistricting, and where high Democratic turnout against Trump in 2020 means that most Democratic frontline pickups from last cycle should be fairly safe. The smart money says that not much shifts in the House next year regardless.
What the bill’s passage didn’t do was significantly affect the national conversation right now. Neither the Sunday shows nor the weekend columnists will spend their time talking about the minimum wage. Americans aren’t going to sit around the kitchen table this weekend and say, “Hey honey, did you see that the Democrats voted for a minimum wage increase a few days ago? Exciting!”
We all know what the conversations we will be about. They’ll be about racism. And Nuremberg rallies with fascist chants. And kids in cages. And exactly which politicians raped children on Epstein’s island and were compromised by him. And whether they love or hate The Squad. And, for those who care, whether climate change is going to kill one-fifth of all of us within 30 years. That’s what people will be talking about.
Democratic leadership has been reticent to take forceful action against Trump because they want to focus on “bread-and-butter” issues that Americans supposedly really care about. The sorts of issues that poll well in frontline districts and presidential swing states. But there’s a reason that smart politicians don’t just put their fingers in the wind and legislate according to the latest polling. It’s the same reason that Republicans continue to win elections despite the wild unpopularity of most of their positions. Polling doesn’t effectively tell you about passion and intensity even when you ask about it directly. And even if it did, if your opponent chooses to push the most hot-button cultural anxieties and divisions of the day, it’s almost impossible to force the conversation to drier topics. Rather, you lean into it and turn it back on the opponent, particularly when the cultural zeitgeist runs in your favor. The majority of the electorate is not a fan of Trump’s increasingly radical and dangerous racist appeals, and the more he engages in these attacks the more votes he loses: in one poll, his support among independents dropped by a full ten points after his “send them back” comments.
There’s something even more fundamental to consider, too: we don’t elect politicians to set themselves up for the following election. We elect them to do things. As Greg Sargent said at The Washington Post:
As for the notion that this is time wasted fighting on Trump’s turf, that’s just utter madness. There’s little doubt that these types of racist displays produced the large popular backlash that delivered Democrats control of the House. Yes, many candidates won by talking about health care and local issues. But the grass-roots energy that boosted organizing and voter turnout was to no small degree driven by that backlash against Trump’s racism. It’s part of why moderates won, too…
Moderate Democrats: No matter how purple your district is, if you can’t explain to swing voters why Trump’s racist and white-nationalist displays and provocations are unacceptable in terms that they’ll understand — if this isn’t a fight you want to have — then you should ask yourself what the heck you’re doing there in the first place.
The same can be said of slow-walking investigations into presidential malfeasance for fear that the result may functionally force them to conduct an impeachment inquiry. Democrats swarmed to the polls in 2018 largely because they knew Trump was horribly corrupt, and they expected the power of House subpoenas to bring his corruption to light. Many of those Democrats will be demobilized if no action is taken, and while most will vote, they may not donate or volunteer. And as for voters who polling suggests oppose impeachment? They still have to decide between Trump and his challenger, and the water cooler conversations are still going to be about the culture war issues, not about whatever bills House Democrats are passing. If the conversation does change temporarily to universal pre-K or Medicare for All, it will be because the Democratic nominee highlighted it on the campaign trail, not because of a House bill.
There is no downside to confronting Trump and engaging the culture war much more aggressively in defense of basic decency. Nor is there any upside for House Democratic leaders to be this afraid of their own shadows. It’s not good policy or good politics—not even for frontline freshman districts.