When the Democrats yielded the House to a resurgent Republican party in 2010, the prevailing mood among Democratic party members was still one of placid, optimistic curiosity: “How will Obama and the Senate continue steering the ship of state?” Since then, their fall from power has only accelerated, and the GOP delivered a coup de grâce to the movement President Obama started in 2008 with the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. For the past two years, Democrats have managed a nearly powerless organization — what happens next week, then, if they win back the House?
It seems unfortunately possible that #resisting will dominate their agenda, preventing the construction of a consensus vision for 2020. The Democratic House could spend two years trying to incapacitate President Trump’s agenda with hearings, investigations, spending cuts and general obstructionism, or it could methodically lay out an alternative for their future candidates — I don’t think they have the bandwidth for both.
Fortuitously, Trump’s election has prevented any revival of the awful phrase “America is already great.” Democratic candidates in 2020 will have to present a case — new or not — that the right-wing project is inferior to their own. It’s easy to be the perpetual rebel, never forced to take power even when it’s handed to you — so easy that savvy politicians might opt to avoid doing so altogether. Dragging Trump officials through essentially trivial House investigations, motions for impeachment and byzantine procedural rebuke isn’t pointless, but it leaves open the possibility that the prosecution of grievances from 2016 will overwhelm any attempt at progress.
The constant drama of the past two years has prevented the country from — as many voters in both parties hoped — “just ignoring politics.” The failing New York Times and once nearly-defunct Washington Post have drastically expanded their readership. TV news has slowed its march toward obscurity, and it seems that social media companies are constantly trying to capture a piece of the political news market. The electorate has, happily or not, resigned itself to a 24-hour circus. Now people are watching, and the left should feel compelled to say something interesting.
It’s possible relevant politicians will recognize the utility of having half a branch of government as a weapon and will use it in a way that supplements the larger project of taking back the hundreds of seats they’ve lost. This would be a strategy borrowed from the GOP. The nonsense controversy of Benghazi wasted millions of dollars and countless hours of time — and it helped make Hillary Clinton the second-least-popular candidate for president ever. The scorched-earth war against Obamacare was a failure on the surface — Obamacare still exists, sort of — but it appeared to make Clinton wary of championing any specific planned legislation. She relegated policy detail to her website and focused on broadly popular generalities in her speeches.
The advantage this type of strategy has brought to the GOP, though, is only maintained through sheer force of will. Without voter suppression efforts, gerrymandering, the inherent advantage of equal representation for states and a fundraising advantage, they’d already be losing most elections. The left will have to pair ruthlessness (which they clumsily debuted at the Kavanaugh hearings) with a genuine message — nobody wants a second chance to vote for Clinton. Victories in 2018 and 2020 will rely on the willingness of left politicians, like Obama in 2008, to say something voters actually want to hear.
The concerted effort to increase turnout this cycle is a good sign. It seems the Democratic party organization might be fully committed to inspiring non-voters rather than converting voters whose connection to reality has been obliterated by Fox News. The question is finally, “Why aren’t people who like us voting for us?” instead of, “Why are people who hate us voting for someone else?”
It’s likely that less than a week from now, Democrats will regain legislative power, and the power of subpoenas and public hearings for the first time in four years. They’ve pursued a watered-down version of the Tea Party strategy following Clinton’s loss in 2016: obstruct what you can, and fearmonger about what you can’t. Taking back the House will compel them to pursue different goals (building a platform for their 2020 races, offering alternative legislation), and will be the first time since 2010 that they’ve been asked to present a unique vision for the country. They might offer people a second chance at Hillary Clinton — moderation, neoliberalism and social progressivism — or they might offer something else: policies that directly counter Trump’s language of “making America great again.”