If Democrats Take the House in November, They Need a Plan for What Comes Next

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill.

Mitch McConnell was right.

When he said in 2010 that "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president," the only surprising thing about it was that it was more forthright than politicians usually are. He was only saying what everyone already understood by then: Not only that Republicans were already trying to make Obama's life miserable, but that if they took the House in that fall's elections (which they did), then destroying his chances at winning a second term would be their primary goal. That, and stopping Obama from passing any meaningful legislation; as John Boehner said about Obama's agenda right before the election that made him speaker of the House, "We're going to do everything—and I mean everything we can do—to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can."

Right now Democrats are in the position Republicans were eight years ago, on the cusp of a victory that could remake the political landscape and the rest of the president's time in office. McConnell was right, and what the Republicans did then is exactly what Democrats should prepare to do now. Or to be more specific, they should do what Republicans did, and also do some other things so that if and when they find themselves in the position Republicans are now they'll be better prepared to take advantage of the power they have.

Why was McConnell right? Because as we've seen, winning the presidency puts spectacular and far-reaching power in the hands of one party, and if it's not your party, nothing you do can be as important as getting that power back. If you don't have the White House, at best you'll be able to bargain for some policy scraps here and there or slightly mitigate the damage that will be done to your goals and values. Of course we hope that the opposition party will act in good faith and not be reckless in the way Republicans were, shutting down the government, threatening to default on America's debt, and strangling every democratic norm they could wrap their fingers around. But unrestrained, ethical opposition—without bothering to pretend that we can all just get along—is completely appropriate.

What would that mean in 2019? If Democrats take back the House, as seems likely, that opposition should have three parts.

The first concerns the legislation that will be addressed over the next two years, and there they should follow Boehner's instruction: The Republican agenda should simply be over and done with. That doesn't actually mean Democrats will obstruct everything; unlike Republicans, they believe government should operate and operate effectively, so they aren't going to shut it down. And there will be some bipartisan legislation from time to time; Congress just passed a bill meant to address the opioid crisis with the cooperation of both parties, which is the kind of new initiative that can still be undertaken.

But if Republicans try to pass more ideological legislation, Democrats should simply refuse. And the truth is that it won't be much of an issue, because once they passed an enormous tax cut to benefit corporations and the wealthy (and tried and failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act), the Republican agenda was pretty much spent. They're still working to do things like take away Americans' health care and make the air and water dirtier, but they're doing it through regulation. There are no major pieces of legislation in the offing.

The second part of the Democratic program is the obvious one: accountability for Donald Trump and his administration. That accountability has been utterly absent up until now, but with control of the House, Democrats will be able to hold hearings, mount investigations, and use their subpoena power to give the public a complete understanding of what the administration is up to. It starts with obtaining the tax returns Trump has kept hidden so we can learn who's paying him and where his interests lie, and moves on from there to the Russia scandal, official corruption, corporate influence, and mismanagement. There will be plenty to explore.

The third part of the program should be preparation for the day, perhaps in 2021, when Democrats once again control Congress and the White House and can implement their own agenda. This is something Republicans failed to do when they were in this position; one only has to witness their slapdash attempt to repeal the ACA, a goal they had been shouting about for years, to see how they were completely unprepared when they took power.

Since Democrats actually have a lot of things they'd like to do, it's even more important for them to lay the groundwork so that when the time comes they can hit the ground running. The contemporary reality is that when they do take power, chances are they'll have only a brief window to use it to its fullest extent, just as Barack Obama did and as Trump likely will. If a Democrat becomes president after 2020 and Democrats control Congress, the inevitable Republican backlash could deliver one or both houses back to the GOP in 2022. So there will be no time to waste on lengthy policy development and debate.

The time to do that development and debate will be while Trump is still president. On issues like universal health coverage, climate change, and workplace fairness, Democrats should use the next two years to explore policies and work toward consensus, so they know exactly what they'll do when they get the chance.

When McConnell, Boehner, and the rest of the GOP contemplated their approach at the beginning of 2009, they decided that the best way to make Obama a one-term president was to throw sand in the gears of government. If Obama could be prevented from doing anything to benefit the public, his chances of reelection would be dramatically diminished. While their ultimate goal was not achieved, it was still a sound strategy. In Democrats' case today, the best way to keep Trump from being a two-term president is to expose him.

Let's take just one example. Two weeks ago, we learned via an extraordinary New York Times investigation that Trump and his family engaged in a years-long conspiracy to commit tax fraud on a massive scale. If you remember the millions of dollars that were spent investigating Whitewater, a miniscule land deal on which the Clintons lost some money, the fact that this revelation of apparent criminal behavior has almost fallen down the memory hole should be appalling. There have been no hearings on the subject, no congressional subpoenas, and not a single Republican (at least that I've seen) who has demanded an investigation. What would have been the expected response of Congress under any other president has been completely absent, and it's a sign of how the Trump era has beaten us all down that no one even expected anything like that to happen.

If Democrats take back the House, they need to reset our expectations to what they used to be. They need to restore accountability, and be as ready as they can possibly be for the time when they're back in power. And they need to start the  moment the 2018 elections are over. 

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