House Democrats have begun to recognize that their strategy of downplaying confrontation with President Trump in the hope of shifting the country’s political agenda to economic issues is not working.
According to the Washington Post, Democrats now see that “the public’s impression of the new House majority is bound up in its battles with Trump, not in its policy agenda,” which in turn “has prompted anxiety about whether the Democratic strategy to hold the House in 2020, by focusing intently on health-care costs and other kitchen-table issues, can be effective amid the president’s attacks.”
It’s tempting to despair that Democrats didn’t anticipate this, and that a full quarter of their term in the majority is now gone. But it’d be more constructive to examine why Democrats did not foresee what their victory would demand of them, in the hope that they might regroup before it’s too late.
House Democrats set about on this path months before the 2018 midterms. First, their candidates in closely contested districts resisted the temptation to tack with the wind as it shifted from the fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination to Trump’s racist incitement against “caravans” in Mexico, to the Trump loyalist who sent pipe bombs to prominent Democrats.
Simultaneously, Democratic leaders gave Republicans and their allied propaganda networks the implicit power to veto impeachment proceedings by announcing that they’d oppose pursuing impeachment on a partisan basis.
The basic arithmetic of this approach left many Democrats convinced that running on health care and other basic economics issues, to the exclusion of everything else, was a magic formula for defeating Trump.
These Democrats drew the wrong lessons from both parts of this equation.
The decision to foreclose an impeachment inquiry absent overwhelming Republican support was a foreseeable error, and set Democrats up to meekly demur in response to serial abuses of power. Trump’s character wasn’t a mystery in 2018. He was a deranged criminal with a lust for power all along, and if Democrats truly desired to avoid a debate over whether or not to impeach him, they should not have contested the 2018 election. That debate was inevitable.
But more importantly, the fact that they won while promising to protect people’s health care wasn’t preordained by some iron law of politics. It was highly contextual, and the context actually supports the idea that Democrats should welcome full-bore confrontation with Trump.
In 2018, when Republicans controlled all branches of government, they deployed their power relentlessly to advance the goal of kicking tens of millions of people off of their health insurance, and handing the government’s savings to corporations and their ultra-wealthy donors. Democrats found an audience for a health-care themed campaign not because voters were highly attuned to the fine details of every House candidate’s health-care agenda, but because people desperately wanted a check in place to stop Trump’s maniacal assault on their ability to see the doctor.
The Democratic House provides that check simply by existing, and it’s important for Democrats to warn the public that the crisis will return if and when Republicans are given full control over the government again. But that is just to say that most voters understood the situation in 2017 and 2018 to be a crisis. That crisis wasn’t limited to the assault on health care, and the extent of the crisis wasn’t lost on people whose health care was most at risk. To the contrary, vulnerable people have been particularly attuned to it.
Rather than interpret their victories as vindication for a confrontational approach, Democrats essentially transplanted their midterm script in to their legislative strategy, as if they could control the country’s political debate by passing well-intentioned House bills destined to die quietly in the Senate.
It didn’t play out that way, for the same reason the midterms didn’t actually play out that way. Yes, Democrats showed impressive message discipline, but they didn’t control the political debate, which swerved wildly with Trump’s outrages, and it wasn’t the particulars of the message that broke through but the correct sense that a Democratic House could stop not just efforts to repeal Obamacare, but other unacceptable aspects of Trump’s presidency.
The first job is done. The job of unifying the party behind a forward-looking health care agenda will fall to the Democrats’ presidential nominee, and that agenda will have to wait for the party to control all three branches of government again. That leaves open the question of what Democrats should do with their power right now. If they are genuinely alarmed by Trump’s ability to shape the political agenda, they can wrest the megaphone away from him. If it bothers them, as the Post reports, that “voters in 12 presidential battleground states trusted Democrats no more than Trump to crack down on political corruption or limit the influence of money in politics,” the tools to expose Trump’s extraordinary sleaziness are at their fingertips. But to use them, they first need to accept that they set off in the wrong direction, and turn around.