With the House of Representatives in Democrats’ control, the next two years will give them the opportunity to show that there’s a better model of legislating, that Congress is capable of doing more for Americans than cutting taxes for the wealthy and menacing everyone else’s health care. Now and again Democratic leaders may need to play constitutional hardball — and they’ll have a chance to do it in a more constructive fashion than Mitch McConnell and his team, who have dominated Congress since 2014.
Even as Democratic House members are picking the confetti from their hair, one thought should be foremost in their minds: How do they avoid screwing things up?
First up: Pick policy battles wisely.
For the midterms, Democrats adopted a trio of policy goals: lowering health care costs, creating jobs by investing in infrastructure, and cleaning up politics via a comprehensive reform package that would tighten ethics laws and shore up the integrity of our electoral system. These are popular causes with bipartisan appeal.
They are also causes for which the president has explicitly expressed his own enthusiasm, whether real or feigned. This gives Democrats the chance to press President Trump about whether he is interested in making progress on his stated goals or is a hypocrite intent on waging partisan trench warfare for the remainder of his term.
First up on the Democrats’ agenda is expected to be the reform package. But they also plan to move quickly to address the plight of the Dreamers, some 700,000 immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children and granted protection from deportation by President Barack Obama. Huge majorities of Americans support letting the Dreamers stay. Finding a compromise path with Mr. Trump would be good policy and good politics.
Of course, even if the president is interested in chalking up a few bipartisan wins, the Republican Senate is unlikely to play along. There’s nothing wrong with Democrats pursuing legislation, such as to raise the minimum wage, that fills out their governing priorities even if, for now, it does little more than clarify the contrasts between their priorities and their opposition’s.
Democrats will theoretically have the power to set the agenda, but they will still be contending with a Republican Senate leader who takes pride in obstructionism for partisan gain. (See: Merrick Garland.) Managing expectations will be vital, and scoring policy victories will require finding the right pressure points. If Democrats can find an issue or two — like spending to fix bridges and tunnels — that will put Republican lawmakers on the opposite side from the president, all the better. As Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s mayor and a seasoned Democratic street fighter, observed, “Part of politics is unifying your team and dividing the other.”
Avoid the “I” word for now.
Impeachment is neither a sensible nor a winning issue to open with. Even many Americans who dislike Mr. Trump will, absent overwhelming evidence of impeachable offenses, balk at efforts to remove a sitting president. (Polls show the percentage of support for impeachment ranging from the high 30s to the high 40s.) Just ask the former House speaker, Newt Gingrich, whose rabid push to bring down President Bill Clinton led to electoral disaster for the Republicans in the 1998 midterms, resulting in Mr. Gingrich being driven from leadership by his own members.
Democrats would do well to wait and see if the investigation by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, turns up high crimes and misdemeanors before deciding whether to pursue the painful and divisive path of impeachment. If so, they’ll want to bring along at least some of their Republican colleagues.
Don’t go crazy with the subpoenas.
It has been a long two years for Democrats, watching Republicans fail to check Trumpian excesses. Which means the new majority might be tempted to overreach and, like Mr. Gingrich’s professed revolutionaries, wind up coming across as more partisan and prurient than public-spirited. Investigations should be strategic and methodical and clearly in the public interest — for instance, looking into corruption among cabinet officials or waste of taxpayer dollars, rather than targeting more lascivious matters, like hush-money payments to former mistresses.
The trick will be finding the right balance in both tone and topic. Many Trump-hating Democrats might be in the mood for payback, but most Americans could easily be turned off by overt political games. And, let’s not forget, this is ultimately not about scoring points — Americans deserve better from their government.
The topic of Mr. Trump’s tax returns will be especially ticklish. The president’s refusal to follow his predecessors’ example and release such basic information raises too many questions about conflicts of interest to ignore. But things could get ugly. The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee has the right to request a copy, at which point the White House must decide if it wants to mount a legal challenge. Democrats need to be ready to make a cogent case — persuasive to the public as well as the courts — for why Mr. Trump’s taxes are a matter of critical concern.
For now, Democratic representatives are making properly judicious noises about oversight. They are holding meetings among themselves to determine which issues should be priorities and how to avoid overlap among the committees. But once the new chairmen take over, the leadership will need a firm hand to minimize the wilding.
Groom the party’s next leaders.
The widespread assumption in Democratic circles is that Nancy Pelosi will reclaim the speaker’s gavel. Practically speaking, this may be for the best, but even Ms. Pelosi has begun referring to herself as a “transitional” leader.
After 16 years as the House Democratic leader, Ms. Pelosi comes with a truckload of baggage, and a growing contingent within her own party feels it is time for a generational overhaul. But the reality is that she has no obvious successor. Her two deputies, Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn, offer no fresher blood. Her presumed heir, Joseph Crowley, is on his way out the door, having lost his seat in the primary election. And while plenty of hungry younger members are eyeing the post, none is seen as having the mix of experience, savvy and grit needed to steer the caucus — which will feature a large, diverse freshman class — through what promises to be a wild two years.
Love her or hate her, nobody herds the cats better than Ms. Pelosi.
That said, the Democratic leadership is staler than week-old toast. And while victory tends to cool intracaucus griping, if Ms. Pelosi becomes speaker, she owes it to the institution and her colleagues to set about raising a new generation of leaders, helping prepare such up-and-comers as Cheri Bustos, Hakeem Jeffries, Linda Sánchez, Ruben Gallego, Joseph Kennedy III, Ben Ray Luján, Eric Swalwell and Seth Moulton, among others.
Given the dismal example set so far by President Trump, Democratic leaders now have a political opportunity, and also a heavy responsibility. Winning the House is one thing. Restoring some sanity to American politics and a sense of higher, common purpose to American governance is yet another.